Hidden Gems: Simileoluwa Adebajo Reimagines African Dishes Through Eko’s Kitchen


Hidden Gems is a series intended to showcase creative, innovative and intellectual Africans. We want to use our platform to share stories of African people doing amazing things in and out of the continent. An article will be released every Thursday.

Simileoluwa Adebajo is a 24 year old Nigerian who grew up in New York/Maryland and moved to Lagos at the age of 7 with her family. She’s currently an incredible chef running Eko’s Kitchen, a restaurant in San Francisco that delivers African cuisine for a global audience.

After trending last year on twitter, her business and ambitions have grown, and she plans on spreading her recipe. It infuses her Nigerian palet while recreating local dishes in a new, colorful & exciting ways.

The Nigerian food ecosystem is blossoming; chefs, restaurant, food festivals and businesses spring up by the day, and we can’t have enough of it. Simileoluwa is finding a way through this, taking her ideas to the world one dish at a time.

If you have a poor work ethic we can’t be friends.

What was your earliest memory of loving food?

Simi — My earliest memory of loving food was my addiction to fried plantain as a child. I had a whole phase where I would not eat anything else. I forced my mom to teach me how to fry plantains once I was tall enough to see into a frying pan. She was happy to finally hand over the spoon to me.

How did that develop into a full-fledged love for cooking early on?

Simi — My mom always encouraged me to be in the kitchen when either herself or my grandmother’s were cooking. There was always this satisfaction that came from knowing that combining things in a certain way would produce a particular outcome. It felt like a science experiment to me every-time I saw the women in my life making magic in the Kitchen.

Can you remember the first time you came up with your own recipe?

Simi — I believe I was 15. I came up with a recipe for coconut curry that used Nigerian obe ata dindin as the base. So tasty. My mom was my tasting subject and tried to pretend it wasn’t great but asked me for the recipe later on.

When did you decide you’ll like to be a chef professionally?

Simi — Honestly it was never a conscious decision. I just knew that I derived a great deal of satisfaction from cooking for and entertaining people, and that I would love to turn it into a business. When the opportunity to open a restaurant presented itself, it seemed like the perfect way to monetize my passion.

Tell us about the birth of your restaurant and the trending moment that changed everything.

Simi — The restaurant opportunity was presented by a location that I had been using for pop up dinners at the time. The owners told me that they were looking for permanent users for the space and that they believed I was capable of making this undertaking work. In Hindsight, their belief in me was what made me take the leap despite my fears and reservations. On the last day of my corporate job I sent it a seemingly benign tweet to let my friends and family know about this major transition and it ended up resonating with tens of thousands of people around the world. Still blows my mind till date.

How has running a restaurant in another country been? What have you learnt from it thus far and what’s been your favorite dish to make?

Simi — Running a restaurant in San Francisco has been exciting and challenging in summary. I have a diverse customer base and the environment pushes me to deliver excellent service for my customers.

What’s your favorite dish to make?

Simi — My favorite dish to make is the coconut honey bean porridge at Eko Kitchen. Its basically Ewa oloyin with my own modern twist. Sweet, spicy and savory at the same time. A real delight.

What do you think about the Nigerian food scene? There’s still a growing food cuisine industry but as young chefs like you break out can we expect change?

Simi — I believe that Nigerian food and traditional African food in general is about to break into the international food scene in a huge way due to the vast appeal for more organic, whole food sources in the western world. Nigerian food is mostly gluten free which is a huge trend right now and we cook with fresh vegetables and bold indigenous spices that present a Novelty experience to many foreigners. I see Nigerian food being at the Forefront of the food scene in a few years, especially as young chefs start to fuse flavors and techniques from around the world with familiar dishes from home.

What are your favorite restaurant to visit in Lagos?

Simi — One, Cactus- mostly nostalgia. My dad and I used to have secret daddy daughter breakfasts here growing up. I also ordered all birthday cakes from here between the ages of 12 and 19. Two, Jevinik – The fisherman’s soup here with pounded yam always brings me to my knees. Three, Ghana High – If you haven’t tried the ewa agayin here then you haven’t lived. And four, Farm City – Whole grilled catfish is a spicy legend.

What would you say is next for you and Eko kitchen? Are you planning on opening a branch in Lagos?

Simi — I hope to continue sharing Nigerian food with people from all over the world with Eko  Kitchen. My goal was always to share the food with people who would have never had the opportunity to try it in order to expose them to our culture and help them understand a little piece of Nigeria. As long as the city of San Francisco and the US will have me, I will continue to do that. I plan to travel around the US more this year, spreading the good Naija food gospel so watch out for Eko kitchen on the move!

And no, I do not plan on opening an Eko Kitchen in Lagos. My business model works in San Francisco because it is a unique restaurant concept in that environment. When I do eventually move back home, I will be working on 2 or 3 premium unique restaurant concepts for the city of Lagos. There is so much opportunity for growth here and so much that has not been explored in the Lagos food space yet so I’m looking forward to that.

Tell us about the opportunities you see for food business & ecosystem here and the big problems you feel we’re still facing holding people back?

Simi — There are a vast number of opportunities here not just in the food ecosystem because of the nascent economy in Lagos. There are, however, a number of barriers to entry due to a lack of infrastructural development, limited access to credit and other unfortunate factors. Nigeria is 131st out of 190 nations on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index so that should tell you how far behind we are.

What gives your recipes a special kick that sets you apart and makes you a hidden gem?

Simi — I try to allow my recipes to reflect my life experiences and my travels especially. I fuse traditional Naija flavors with techniques and dishes that I tasted in the city of San Francisco, on the coast of Italy, in the Greek islands and in simple cafes in Amsterdam. I am definitely not the best out there but I believe that my food is full of heart and it shows.

Can you name some of your favourite African/Nigerian chefs if you have any? And your best chef in general.

Simi — My favorite African chefs are in no particular order Chef Stone at Red dish Culinary, Tobi Smith who I consider a friend even though we’ve never met irl, Chef Fregz, Imoteda and thefatgirlwithin (Chef Nike).
And my best chef in general is Chef Kwame Onwuachi. What he’s doing with Nigerina food on the international scene is dope. Would love to work with him eventually.

Adedayo Laketu

Adedayo Laketu is a creative inventor who's interested in curating a New Age for Africa across all mediums.

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