Meet The Chefs Digging Deep Into The Nigerian Spice Cabinet

Meet the chefs reaching deep into the chile-laced Nigerian spice cabinet

"A white chef with tattoos will take it to next level."

That's Nigerian-born Tunde Wey, talking about the bold, funky and sometimes bracingly spicy flavors of Nigerian food. Wey pinpoints an important conversation happening right this minute in the food world: Who can cook whose food and with how much license?

"It's not wrong or bad, but I think it's disingenuous that cuisines from different cultures have been popularized in certain kinds of restaurants from people not from their culture," he says. "Everyone doing that should carry some level of responsibility and discomfort."

But, he adds, "Give [Nigerian food] five years. It will blow up."

Whether or not his prediction holds true, Wey is one of a small band of chefs with Nigerian and American roots who are giving a fresh look to some of the country's most beloved dishes, like peppersoups; suya (sliced grilled steak rubbed with ground peanuts and onion powder; see the recipe); whole fish coated in chile-laced spice blends; jollof rice; and egusi, a stew made with melon seeds and often eaten with ẹbà, a dough of sorts that doubles as filling side and utensil. Here, meet three of them.

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Adé Elẹgbẹdé

The Prodigal Son: Michael Adé Elẹgbẹdé

This is "the food that made me fall in love with cooking in the first place" says Nigerian-born chef Michael Adé Elẹgbẹdé, who has recently returned to open an ambitious tasting menu restaurant called ÌTÀN in Lagos.

A few years ago, he had checked off a bucket list of culinary accomplishments: The CIA grad had staged at Le Bernardin, Alinea and Eleven Madison Park, and was invited to return to Eleven Madison. But, Elẹgbẹdé says, "At a certain point, I felt lost."

Still in New York, he hosted Nigerian food pop-up dinners. "I started to see how I could represent Nigerian food in a way no has ever seen," he explains. But he wanted to open a restaurant. The legendary René Redzepi at Noma offered some advice: "He told me, 'You have to go Nigeria, spend time there and create a food that is true to you and true to your people,'" Elẹgbẹdé recalls.

ÌTÀN should open next year. But even Elẹgbẹdé has faced some resistance for the license he's taking. At a recent food festival where he shared dishes like poached prawns in a peppersoup with smoked crayfish broth, he was greeted by those excited by his cooking and others "who wanted to argue our food was not Nigerian food." But, he explains: "I am not cooking Nigerian food, rather utilizing locally sourced ingredients to create dishes that are influenced by our food cultures and traditions."

Still, Elẹgbẹdé is cooking for his countrymen: "This is for our people to have this pride in our food." And, he predicts, "Within 10 years, I will have a restaurant in America, most likely in New York City, my home."

Photo: Kevin Carroll

The Familiar Face: Kwame Onwuachi

When Elẹgbẹdé opens his restaurant, his friend and former shift partner at Eleven Madison, Onwuachi, will be there to collaborate on a dinner. Onwuachi, best known from the most recent season of Top Chef, spent two years living in Nigeria when he was 10 and is also reaching into the Nigerian pantry. "We raised our own livestock, plucked palm kerns . . . all of those memories come back to me now more so than ever," he says.

At his much-anticipated restaurant, The Shaw Bijou, in Washington, D.C., the menu will draw on influences from around the globe. But at his members-only bar attached to the space, Onwuachi says there will be nods to Nigeria with dishes like suya prepared with 40-day dry-aged Wagyu, as well as egusi, updated by replacing the traditional dried stock fish with fresh monkfish.

Photo: Claire Nelson

The Conversation Starter: Tunde Wey

Wey, a self-taught cook who calls himself a Nigerian "food dude," was serving egusi at his stall in New Orleans's St. Roch market until it closed last spring. These days, he's cooking Nigerian food at a series of dinners that are part meal, part conversation space for discussions that center around blackness.

"We believe dining spaces should be just as much about social commentary as they are about food," he says on his website. The food will come out of the background at a restaurant Wey hopes to open, where he says he wants to "contemporize [Nigerian food] and take it away from the 'exotic' or caricature space."

But when asked to describe the foods of his home country, Wey says they are "sweet, salty, aromatic, [but] those don't mean anything until you put it in your mouth."

Find Eleven Madison Park here, or in our DINE app.

Find Le Bernardin here, or in our DINE app.