“My Name is Fred Apaloo, and I am Villa Grace.”
Oprah Winfrey once said “If you hear about somebody once, you can ignore them but twice and you should wisely take note.” This to me epitomises my experience with Villa Grace. When a name synonymous with Ghana comes up in dinner conversations in faraway London, you sit up and if you are into food as I am, then you dig a bit more. That digging led me to a fantastically curated Instagram page that revelled in pushing the boundaries of culinary creativity to the hilt. Like great food my appetite had been whetted and I just had to make contact to get a bit more of this incredibly elusive brain behind Villa Grace.
Fred Apaloo is his name and as I read through the responses to the exclusive interview below I couldn’t help but meditate on this quote, “Develop a passion for learning and you will never cease to grow.” This to me not only personifies the Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo brand, but I now know it is also the hallmark of the man behind the brand.
It is an absolute pleasure to bring to you Fred Apaloo, the man who is taking culinary aesthetics and experiences to places I never thought possible.” – Nii Thompson
“My Name is Fred Apaloo, and I am Villa Grace.”
I grew up in Accra in a very close-knit family. I’m the third of four children so there was never a dull moment in our home. My siblings are my friends and we spent a lot of our childhood finding ways to entertain each other, some of which got us into a lot of trouble. I was also fortunate to have a multitude of cousins from both sides of the family. Weekends, birthdays and especially holidays were exceptionally fun and I thoroughly enjoyed those moments with my entire family.
I went to Christ the King School for my elementary education and subsequently to Lincoln Community School for middle and high school. Christ the King taught me a lot about being disciplined and Lincoln allowed me to be confident in my own ways and nurture whatever talents I found in myself.
I took a keen interest in food at a very young age. Not only did I think it was incredibly delicious (I loved to eat and still do) but I thought it was a creative way of self expression. I however still hadn’t experimented with it yet, not until I was about ten years old. I used to have a slight obsession with pizza and we usually only had it on weekends. So one day as a result of a serious midweek craving, I thought to myself there’s got to be a way to make this at home and it can’t possibly be that difficult. I then began to think of the construction of a pizza mentally; there was a bread like base, there was a tomato sauce, cheese and then some toppings, often ham in my case. I went to the kitchen, cut a slice of bread and rolled it out thin, then I put some ketchup on it, some sandwich cheese (which is definitely not for pizza) and some sliced ham and into the microwave it went. I was so pleased with the outcome and this sparked an interest in recreating some of my restaurant favorites myself in my own special way. I was only ten.
Over the years my interest in culinary became stronger and through that I became more skilled but it was still as much a hobby as a good night out with my friends. I never thought I’d make a career out of it.
I was extremely fortunate from a very young age to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandmother Grace. My grandma Grace was an impeccable home maker. Her home was always spruced like no other and her natural culinary skills were unmatched. As a little boy, I remember often spending numerous amounts of time in her kitchen; watching first, then assisting in many cooking adventures at her home. It brought me great joy and I especially loved the holiday season where we baked and did so many roasts; chicken parcels, legs of lamb, turkeys and much more. I was influenced by her in so many ways and I didn’t even realize it until I became an adult.
From a young age, I always knew I wanted to work in the hospitality industry. My dream was to own a hotel one day. My passion for hospitality has remained an important part of me and forever will; testimony to this is my undergraduate degree from Lynn University in Hospitality Management, and subsequently my Masters of Business Administration with a specialization in marketing which I believe is also a crucial part of hospitality.
Knowing the Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo brand
Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo is a spiritual gift. The concept was born without being conceived. I was in between moving from Miami to Accra and while in Accra I had so much time while creating a mature space that I could live in at my parents house, just a little bit of remodeling. I therefore insisted on cooking for myself everyday, but this time I cared not only about the flavor of the food, but the aesthetic of my plate – the presentation. It became like role play.
I was the hotel or restaurant guest AND the cook at the same time. I cooked my food, plated it, photographed it and then ate it. And each time my goal was to impress myself more and more.
This made me very happy. I shared photos on my personal Instagram, mainly because I really wanted my friends in the United States to realize that all of Africa is not what it’s portrayed to be on television. I called my home Villa Grace, Grace after my beloved grandmother who had passed away months before my return back home. It was just a way of keeping her memory alive in my heart, and for the influence I had now realized she had on my life especially with food. It was very personal.
A lot of my friends in Ghana started to get really excited about the food I was making and oftentimes would come over to eat with me. Still, Villa Grace was just a personal exhibition of my food as a work of art and reflection and it was something I very much protected. My cousin Aku Sika Akuffo was a constant guest at Villa Grace and so were my very close family friends, Sena Ababio and Coby Armah. Together they kept pushing and encouraging me to make something out of my creativity and talent, and launch a public page just showcasing photographs of my work.
I was hesitant for months, but in those months of hesitation I did a lot of soul searching, a lot of reading, a lot of recipe testing, a lot of learning and understanding in depth, the fundamentals of culinary. I visited spice markets, I read countless books and articles, and trained myself hours and hours a day in the hope of mastering my craft.
I often hosted private dinner parties and especially brunches for my friends and family. Brunch Friends became a thing every Saturday at my house where I got a chance to cook for my closest friends and listen to their constructive feedback. Then I was ready, ready to just launch a public Instagram page to showcase my work as art, empowering men that cook… African men that cook.
On 9th September 2015, Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo went live for the first time on Instagram from Accra. By this time I knew in my mind and in my heart that this was my calling and I had to do something more with it. I felt it in my heart, I felt it in my bones, and it just felt right. Still, I kept it to myself as I fought my nerves in anticipation of how Ghanaians would respond to my craft. The response was mind blowing! – an overwhelming amount of positivity which made me very excited but also aggressive to really take this concept, perfect it and run with it.
The Genesis Brunch
After a few months of whetting the appetites of our fans I knew it was time to give them an opportunity to experience Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo, now a boutique and lifestyle brand with a specialization in culinary. Pop up dining is very common in South Florida and so it was a no brainer to have a pop up event where fans could sample the food. The creation of Genesis, my first production was incredibly fun but involved a lot of work. I’m a firm believer in experiential dining so I wanted to make sure that I thoroughly expressed that through the Genesis brunch.
There was an entire team that worked countless hours behind the scenes to make sure that the Genesis brunch was close to perfect. I’m ever so grateful to my parents who have been the biggest blessing; my siblings Frank, Senam and Michael who don’t live in Ghana but played their part in making sure that I had everything I needed; my aunt Jacqueline who is my mentor, she’s the owner of Mukaase which for many years has been a reputable restaurant and catering force specializing in African cuisine and whose garden is home to my events; my aunt Tina who is also my mentor with unparalleled experience specifically in fine dining; my cousin Aku Sika who is basically half of me; my best friend AnneMarie Bartels who although living in the UK at the time of the brunch, served as the best legal counsel, menu consultant and confidante.
I also received support from my family friend and brother Sena, now “Mr. Luc Belair” who provided the champagne; my dear friend Frema who assisted me in the kitchen and my best friend Karim who also assisted me in the kitchen along with other kitchen staff whom I’m eternally grateful for. Finally to my very special event planner Maxine of Sterling Events, for being ever so patient and bringing my vision to life. Without all of these people and more, the Genesis brunch would not have been possible or successful. The Genesis brunch was a beautiful event and will forever hold a special place in my heart. Following that we’ve had two others, Champagne and CandyCanes; a holiday special and the presentation of my first collection Prêt a Manger GRACE. In between, I’ve also had some more quiet ones like Thanksgiving and Easter by Villa Grace for close family and friends.
What makes Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo a distinct or unique service?
Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo is unique because we aim to incorporate everyday food with a gourmet twist married with experiential dining into one package. Not only is flavor important to me, but the plating, the ambiance, the music, the service and the beverage selection are all important aspects that add to the overall experience. When I go out to eat I look for and pay close attention to these things. I pay attention to the music, the setting, the plants and the service and it all affects my mood and overall experience.
I want people who experience Villa Grace to walk away with a refreshed sense of food and beverage and with higher expectations and respect for it.
What services do you offer? Do you have a place where people can come and enjoy your treats? Or you only do exclusive invitation-only private events?
Currently I specialize in boutique catering, basically catering for smaller and intimate events and audiences where I’m able to thoroughly focus on attention to detail. And of course also have my pop up dining experiences for both private and public audience. I’m working hard on the next one and can’t wait to bring it to our fans.
You are the Gastronomist and Creative Director at Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo. What does your work entail?
My role as the Creative Director of Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo means I oversee the creative process for the Villa Grace experience. This means from concept to execution of our food, beverage selection and ambiance, I am fully responsible. I am very focused and I always know specifically what I want, so even when I work with my event planner I’m still able to creatively direct her on what I’d like the setup to look like and the effect and feeling I’d like it to have on my guests. I’m also of course always cooking and finding new and innovative ways to improve existing dishes while building our menu. I love photography and I’m extremely into it.
In our opinion, you have the most captivating Instagram food account in Ghana. Your dishes are not what most Ghanaian homes will take on any day. Yours is a unique brand. How did you dream of building something as unique as you’ve built?
I photograph all the food that go up on our Instagram page myself. And much to the disbelief of others I use my iPhone which I absolutely love because it’s quick and easy. Technology is a beautiful tool. I do a lot of reading everyday especially at night before I go to bed. I’m always trying to expand my knowledge of the food industry and also finding ways to naturally improve my skills. I don’t have any professional culinary training which is why I call my craft a gift. And I have no intentions of going to an institution to learn; I learn and improve my skills everyday by reading, watching and practicing. Those are my ways of naturally nurturing my God-given skill.
Who are your clients? How do you reach them? How are you leveraging social media to promote your brand and reach new customers?
The Villa Grace client is anyone who believes in dining beyond the norm and especially one who is open to living in the moment through food. One must allow their palate to embrace different flavors and textures and embrace the aromas that come with it to fully appreciate my craft. If you’re a simple diner then Villa Grace is certainly not for you.
And I fully understand that not everyone out there will appreciate what I do. I understand that my craft is directed at a specific diner. It’s a connection between man and food and that in itself is a skill and for some even a gift. I’m always excited when I meet people who like myself appreciate the risqué side of dining and are always willing to try new things with an open mind.
I credit social media for the success of my brand thus far. Instagram (with the exception of word of mouth of course) has been the only form of publicity I have used and I’m extremely pleased with what it’s done for the brand. I am working on launching a website soon that will hopefully reach a larger audience.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced on the journey?
The biggest challenge I face in Accra comes when I have to source ingredients. It’s very difficult to find exotic ingredients on the shelves everyday. But I’ve built some good relationships with some of the stores so it’s making it a lot easier to import ingredients or place special orders etc. Otherwise I also personally import a lot of ingredients that I can’t find on the Ghanaian market or in stores.
Getting to Know Fred More
Favorite Ghanaian dish? Favorite Continental dish?
My favorite Ghanaian dish has to be Waakye! I love a good medley of flavors and consistency in my mouth and Waakye does that for me. Whoever created it is a food genius. My favorite continental dish… I don’t think I have one. I appreciate the Asian and Italian cuisines very much. I love a good Curry, I also love a good Mediterranean dish, it’s hard to strap down on one favorite continental dish because I truly appreciate them all in different ways and for different reasons.
Your choice of music? Any favorite artistes?
Oh my music, I appreciate music in all capacities and I think I express it through my events. I love jazz, I love lounge music, I love techno, I love rap but I also really love Ghanaian music – hiplife and highlife. I usually cook these days with music in the background and I choose different genres for different cuisines. I’ve found that it helps with the creative process.
What’s the ideal breakfast you’d want to wake up to?
An ideal breakfast to wake up to will definitely be Waakye any day. But a really good waakye bowl though. Everyone is picky when it comes to their Waakye vendor and I’m no exception to that.
Are you a reader? Favorite genres?
I read a lot but it’s a lot of culinary “stuff”. Online journals and online articles is all I do every night before I go to bed.
What do you do for fun, to unwind or to relax?
I’m very much a talker so I love being around my friends in my free time and even when I’m busy. I’m inspired by conversation and new concepts come to mind through them all the time. I also really enjoy hanging out with my siblings. We of course “disagree” every now and then but I love hanging out with them because I know they always genuinely have my best interest at heart. My absolute most favorite thing to do in my free time though, is hang out with my mom. Just lay next to her and tell stories and laugh and laugh and laugh some more. My mom is my mother first but she’s also one of my best friends, and my biggest cheerleader. I don’t know how she does it but it’s great. I love a good drink with my buddies. I usually see my buddies after work everyday. It’s almost like a routine and I absolutely love it, it’s therapeutic.
Do you enjoy travelling? What are your favorite destinations in and outside Ghana? Why these places?
Traveling is extremely important to me because it not only broadens the way I think, but it exposes me to so many diverse and invaluable cultural perspectives which enhance my cosmopolitan sensibility and inspires me in so many ways. I love the Caribbean. The water speaks to me, the culture connects with me and the people fulfill me.
Do you have any African heroes?
My grandmother Grace is my hero not only for the kind of grandmother she was to me, but as a notable educator for many in our country. My parents are also my heroes for many reasons I hold close to my heart.
Going into Fred’s Kitchen
Favorite kitchen task? Favorite kitchen tool/equipment/gadget?
My favorite kitchen task is probably designing – conceptualizing the aesthetics of my plates before I start cooking. Sometimes I draw it out first. My favorite kitchen tool is definitely a good knife. A good knife goes a long way. I also love a good and strong blender.
What’s the first dish you learned how to cook? Who taught you?
The first thing I learned how to make on my own was my pizza experiment. My first official lesson in creating a dish that was edible to everyone was bread and butter pudding and my grandma Grace taught me. I still refer to her recipe book today for different things. It’s old school and handwritten which I absolutely love. I also learned how to make a really good okra soup when I was a teenager. My paternal grandmother Georgina taught me. We call it Fetridekyi. I don’t know if I’m spelling it correctly but it’s awfully delicious and I still make it today.
What genre of food you enjoy cooking the most? How do you get inspiration for your recipes?
I enjoy cooking brunch the most. Brunch is fun because it doesn’t have to be too heavy or too light and you can have a lot of fun with it. It also represents Sweet and Savory through different dishes but they all still marry well in a course meal. I’m inspired by so many things when I’m cooking. Photography, architecture, music, interactions, almost anything really. My brain has a mind of its own where food is concerned, so it takes inspiration from some of the strangest places. I will say however that it’s not always successful but I definitely always try it out to see the outcome.
Where do you buy your ingredients from?
I source most of my ingredients from Accra of course, and then the UK, the United States and South Africa.
Any favorite food programme (or channel), cookbook or food blog?
I love food channels of all sorts I always learn a thing or two from different programs. I especially like the ones that focus on different cultures around the world.
What are your top three cooking tips to share with our readers?
The three cooking tips I’d give anyone is, be patient, be confident in the kitchen and have fun while you’re at it.
What herb or spice will you never miss in any food you prepare?
One thing I can’t cook without? Well it depends on what I’m making. Salt is probably most commonly used across the board. But different dishes require different ingredients so there isn’t necessarily one thing I can’t do without.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to food? What do you love most about your job?
My philosophy when it comes to food is simple. Good food maintains a healthy mind, body and soul. And what I love most about my job is my job. I say that because when you’re passionate about something it becomes a part of your life so it doesn’t really feel like work or a job. I’m extremely passionate about what I do and I’m very dedicated to the future of dining in Accra and what my brand adds to it.
Coming Out of the Kitchen
What is it like doing business in Ghana?
I’m fairly new to the scene, it hasn’t even been a year; of which I’m still back and forth between Miami and Accra so I don’t know if it’s fair to state my opinion on doing business in Ghana. I suppose so far so good.
Ghanaian foods lack variety. Do you think it’s time households experiment with new dishes and new cooking methods? Can we ever move away from corn porridge, fufu, akple, boiled rice and ampesi as our most consumed dishes?
Staple Ghanaian dishes are awfully nutritious and very delicious. I was raised on the staples and I still love them. I think as generations and time changes more households will incorporate creativity into their cuisines. If not I’ll do it for them…for a little fee!
What do you think is the next big thing in the Ghanaian food industry?
The next big thing on the food scene is definitely brunch in my opinion. We’re just slowly grasping onto the concept of “boozy brunches” especially on the weekends and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. The brunch scene is definitely about to take off. High tea also seems to me an emerging concept which is great because it takes common practices in a Ghanaian household (tea and bread), and gives it a glorified twist while promoting social activity.
If you were to put together a “101 Things to Do in Accra” guide for non-Accra and non-Ghana residents, what will your top three be?
Top three top things for tourists to do when they are in Ghana are; get in touch with Villa Grace and let’s arrange a private dining experience for you, the rooftop at Villagio at night because the view is breathtaking, then probably a visit to one of the multiple beaches along the coast.
What’s your advice for young people who want to become food entrepreneurs?
My advice for young people who want to get into this business is to go for it. The sky is your limit, go beyond that if you can. Dream and speak things into reality, there’s so much power in believing in your dreams. Don’t let anyone stop your creative process, it’s for you and no one should be able to take it away. Believe in your vision and have fun with it.
How has your family and friends supported you in the journey?
I’ve been so blessed to have a family that supports me. My parents have been my biggest cheerleaders since I embarked on this journey. They always want to know what’s next and they always want me to challenge myself but they also keep me grounded, and so do my siblings. My friends have been like family, some of them have cooked in the kitchen with me, others have been hosts and hostesses at my events. They’ve really shown me in many ways the true meaning of friendship and I’m grateful for the unbreakable bonds I share with them. They know who they are.
Anyone you’ll like to thank?
I’d like to thank God first simply for everything. None if this is possible without him. I’m nothing without my parents and I’m forever grateful to them as well. I’m also grateful for my siblings and my friends, my aunties Jacqueline and Tina, vendors and my entire team. But most importantly I’m so thankful for my fan base. I don’t take you for granted and each and every one of you motivate me everyday more than you will ever know.
Find Villa Grace by Fred Apaloo on Instagram.