If you were to conjure up an image of the last meal you truly enjoyed, it would most likely be followed by a feeling of hunger or a desire to indulge in the pleasure of a delicious dish. But, as chef Moyo is trying to show with the Atije Experience, food can be so much more: the prerequisite for beautiful beginnings; an effective conversation starter; an introduction to the life of others and why they do what they do; the foundation of formidable relationships or a delectable tool for the expression of the emotions words cannot capture.
“What is Nigerian food exactly? I cannot say that I know. And that is the beauty of our cuisine. We have over 250 ethnic groups, and that means we have over 250 methods of cooking. It might be [that the] asaro from Ijebu is different from [the] asaro in Abeokuta. And those variations really open us up … and it also shows our similarities. We all eat native rice, we all eat zobo, (sic) we all eat asaro in different ways.”
“Nigerians, I think in some ways we can have a sense of unity but when it comes to our food, we can be a bit tribalistic. People are like, ‘Ah! Me I don’t eat amala: what is that black Yoruba food?’ You might think it is not your food, but have you tried it? Have you truly experienced it?”
I first met chef Moyo at the premier Atije Experience pop-up back in May. Like other diners, I was shocked to see everyday dishes take on new forms and different food items, that I would have sworn before that day could not be eaten together, appear on the same plate. For example, the sweet potato puree and the egusi. I have seen the odd mix – egusi and white rice, egusi and bread – but uziza-flavoured egusi and sweet potato puree? That was a definitely first, and the main reason why the Atije Experience exists.
“I think one of our primary goals is just to encourage Nigerians to enjoy our food in different ways. I think Nigerian, West African food, we kind of relegate it to home food, celebration food, but it is not like special food, it is not like fine dining,” explains chef Moyo. “It is like we can all cook rice, we can all do this, but I think it’s opening our minds – including myself – to see that Nigerian food has more potential.”
Since Awari, Ms Odunfa has gone on to host two other food tasting events – Asiri and Ajowa. For now, she is focused on these pop-ups, which happen every 4-6 weeks, rather than on opening or running a traditional restaurant. “I guess in a sense, [what I do] is not very common, but I think it is something that a lot of chefs do. Even if I were to open a restaurant, I don’t think it would be typical. I think I would still want to do like a set menu. We might have different types of set menus, maybe for different days, or maybe like lunch versus dinner … but I don’t think it will be the regular ‘oh, let’s choose something off the menu.’ I think we would still use this concept because I really enjoy doing it.”
Moyo may have fallen into some sort of routine for the culinary pop-ups at the Atije Experience, but the challenges she faces in bringing people together to discover Nigerian food in a whole new way have not abated in any way.
“Nigerians, we love our food [but] if I can just get people to come, that is usually the major [challenge]: convince people to just come. Once they come, we [can] have beautiful experiences together and … show [them] what we do. Because people can be a bit dismissive of Nigerian food like ‘Ah, we know it, we don’t want to go out and eat it.’ So, truly being able to convince people that this is a worthwhile experience for [them is] just something.”
“[In terms of putting together the menu for each experience] having to do a new menu every month can be challenging, it can be interesting, it can be exciting and balance is very key for us. And that is another thing that can be a bit tricky because … let me use Ajowa as an example. To me, I think when we think of asaro, a lot of times, we eat it with fish – smoked fish, dried fish. But initially, I wanted to do the dish with chicken because I wanted to use fish for the main course. But we had to switch that around because we realised that no, this dish is simply eaten with seafood, so we had to keep that there and change the main course to accentuate that. So, even when we start off thinking that this is what we want to do, we realise that no, there has to be balance, everything has to flow. You cannot give people a palate cleanser and then a very spicy and overpowering dessert – the palate cleanser would have had no effect at the end of the day. So, we really try and make sure that everything … makes sense even as a person is eating it.”
“[Lastly], having the faith to put out that menu actually [is another challenge we face]. Because, if I use Ajowa as an example again, the desert was zobo. And it went through so many iterations because we really tried … at the beginning, it kinda tasted like a palate cleanser because zobo can be very light, and we were thinking, ‘ok, how do we make this a dessert? Something that people would actually, you know, want to relish and it’s sweet and all that.’ And, even after the dessert was done, I wasn’t sure that it was the right thing. And people loved it! I couldn’t even believe it! So sometimes, it’s really just that courage to believe that what we’re doing is good enough. What we’re doing is worthy of being experienced. As much as I believe in Nigerian food … there’s a difference between ok I believe in Nigerian food and I believe in my own Nigerian food. Having that faith to say I am putting this out, and I am going to believe that people would enjoy it. I am going to make sure that it is good enough to be enjoyed. And I think with every menu – even menus that we have done before – sometimes it’s just to click that button to say ‘post’ that can be a daunting moment but so far so good, we’re making it work.”
But in the end, the entire process appears to be paying off on both sides. “I think people have been surprised. Sometimes when people come, they’re sceptical. And they say, ‘let’s just go, sebi it’ll be a nice time.’ [But they] are surprised at the amount of networking they have there at that long table because it can be daunting. [But] the ice actually breaks over time, and [they] are surprised that the food tastes how it tastes. Because, they think, you know, in Nigerian restaurants there is a lot of hype. There is a lot of glitz and glamour, and the food might not actually meet up to your expectations. So people are actually surprised that [the] food is actually nice, [it] tells a story and they learn. They go home with new information about Nigerian food. ‘Oh, I didn’t that that dawadawa and iru were the same. I did not know that native rice, Abakaliki rice is also the same as ofada rice but not just fermented’ So that knowledge really really makes a difference, I think.”
“I have [also] learnt a lot! I have learned the importance of having a full overview of this kind of event [which] has been really important. Because for me, I am a chef, but doing this kind of thing, I have to wear so many more hats: to be a sommelier and think about wine pairings; to be an events planner; to be logistics [manager] … everything, too many moving parts at every time and it has taught me the importance of teamwork.”
“When it comes to the kitchen, honestly speaking, it has taught me that there is really no boundaries. This last Ajowa menu, we were trying to play on ileya and ram, and we had to buy a whole ram, so that we could control the parts of the ram that we were cooking. And that for me was something I would have felt afraid of before, but once you set your mind to something, truly truly – and it might sound cliché – but you’ll do it if you have to do it and that just gives you more boldness and courage to do it another time.”
Chef Moyo may be intentional about reintroducing us to our food in ways we did not think possible, but for her, the Atije Experience is deeper than that. The Atije table is the foundation of relationships. And the success it has recorded so far has actually amazed her.
“The networking has surprised me. When people sit on a table, sometimes we’re really privileged to have someone who is like a very engaging person and just draws everybody in. I don’t know, especially Fridays, Fridays can be so … they don’t even want to listen to me talk anymore: they’re talking to each other, they’re sharing about their careers. One time, someone was even playing their song because she was like a musician. I’m so encouraged when I see everyone truly just connecting. And there was even a person who said someone was sitting opposite him at one dinner and he didn’t say a word throughout dinner and he thought ok, he didn’t really want to talk. Later on, he sent a message on LinkedIn saying, I met you here, I would like to connect. You know, and those things, they really, I don’t even know how to say it, they really bring me joy because … that thing of, we’re actually eating together. We can all sit on one table from different walks of life, different tribes, different languages, different cultures. We can all eat together and it has an effect on all of our lives afterwards.”
At the moment, chef Moyo is planning a new pop-up that is set to happen from the 23rd to the 25th of September. And this time, the experience is a bit special. “This time last year, we were in a competition called The Kitchen, Nigeria, and I think that was an opportunity to really test out the Atije concept in general, like in public. [Now] we’re bringing that menu back so that people that did not get to experience it then [can do so]. [We’re] bringing it back a bit better, revamping some of the recipes, rethinking them. But still bringing back the same stories and the same essence.”
“So this menu is Atije, literally the original Atije, meaning how we eat. We’re exploring in general how we eat as Nigerians … we have dishes from Calabar, dishes from the South West … things like abula, things like banga and we’re really just bringing … I think a lot of the dishes were really delicious, and we are trying to think of a way to bring it back even better and enable our guests who didn’t know about us then to try it out once again.”
Want to get a feel of what The Atije Experience is? Register for the upcoming pop-up at www.atije.com or click on the link in the bio of the Atije Experience page on Instagram.