Chef Tunde Wey: On developing conversations around Nigerian food
Chef Tunde Wey seems like a jovial, charming and somewhat philosophical man, but above all that he is incredibly serious about Nigerian food. His sojourn in food came to the fore when he co-founded a restaurant called Revolver in Detroit. This then led to an important time in his journey when his focus revolved more around promoting Nigerian food through pop-ups, as we featured here – Watch Chef Tunde Wey promote Nigerian food.
That passion for promoting Nigerian food has been refined further and added to by the Nigeria born cook and writer, to include a thematic dinner series. These aren’t just supper clubs or nomadic dining experiences, but are dining experiences integrated with conversations. The themes of the conversations Chef Tunde tells us, can range from technology, fashion or stray into pertinent societal issues like violence against women. The idea is to gather an intimate group of diners to converse around a theme. It is hoped that each guest will share personal stories, discussing how their life intersects with the chosen theme. The dinners are expected to last for a couple of hours. Drinks are served first, followed by a presentation, then the dinner and discussions held at the end.
We caught up with chef Tunde over the weekend by phone in his home state of Detroit, whilst he was out celebrating his Uncle’s 70th birthday to get to know a bit more about him.
Tell us about the latest dinner series theme?
The latest one is about Nigerian food and the conversation around blackness. It is about exploring blackness with the people around the dinner table to get different perspectives on what blackness is and what blackness means. A lot of Africans, at least those in the States, don’t understand the African-American experience. Being black in the States has different political and social implications to being black in Africa. I think there is a major disconnect between how Africans perceive black Americans and how black Americans perceive Africans. This dinner series isn’t there to bridge that gap, but I think it’s part of finding a common ground.
Tell me about your famous emails one of which is “Help a Nigerian today becouse one Nigerian helped is one less Nigerian sending you fraudulent emails”. I understand these were sent to potential collaborators and others in the food space. What were the underlying reason(s) behind the emails?
(Laughs) I wanted to dispel certain notion of what it is to be Nigerian, African or even black so I was using the emails to play up on that, but also trying to reframe what is accepted or acceptable as good food or high end food. By sending those emails I also wanted folks to think of African food or Nigerian food not as something that was different or foreign, but something that was happening now.
Your presentation of Nigerian food is pretty authentic. Is this intentional?
Yes it is. My best friend that I grew up with lives in Minneapolis. I went to visit and we started talking about Nigerian food. He said to me that the problem with Nigerian food is that it doesn’t present well and that once we can address that issue it will do well. I disagreed with him.
The idea that we have of how food should be presented is Eurocentric. We see beauty and aesthetics in a particular language and that language is colonial and originally European and so I reject that. But having said that I am also aware of being more deliberate about the way the food looks, but I don’t go crazy with radishes and stuff like that!
Where do you see African cuisine 3-5 year from now in the USA ?
It depends on the target market. A lot of African restaurants are doing well becouse they cater for Africans who love eating from those restaurants.
But I also don’t want African food to become so “trendy” that it becomes appropriated and then we end up losing control of the narrative. My interest lies more in folks seeing the food as contemporary, vibrant and modern. That’s what I want.
Do you have any plans to take what you do (the cooking) to your country of birth?
(Laughs). I’m not a Chef in that sense. My thing is to provide an experience. Before it was more about introducing people to Nigerian food, but now I’m more interested in incorporating the conversations with the food as part of contemporarising Nigerian food, so now we talk about race or fashion or anything. So if I’m coming to Nigeria it will not be to cook, but to develop conversations around food. I’m interested in serving amazing good quality food, but there are things to talk about like technology, violence against women and I think food serves as an opportunity to get people to have those conversations.
Any tips for entrepreneurs ?
Just do it and make it happen…..and don’t listen to your parents! They’ll tell you to become a Doctor! (Laughs)