Tiyan Alile: Shaping The Future Of Grand Cuisine
The moment I stepped into the Culinary Academy and Tarragon in Ikoyi, I knew that Tiyan Alile was going to be a very interesting woman to meet. Every inch of the space was designed to create an ambience that was both soothing and aesthetically pleasing. There were beautiful paintings, an array of empty wine bottles by a window refracting light in the most elegant fashion and a lovely grand piano.
Her teaching space pushed my curiosity even further. It was evident that whoever ran this space was very organised. With every equipment and utensils in its proper place, you can’t help but wonder how one woman could balance a strong artistic inclination with proper structure and attention to detail.
For a woman whose profile boasts of amazing things like Executive Chef at Tarragon, founder of the Culinary Academy and president of the Culinary Arts Practitioners Association in Nigeria, when Tiyan Alile finally stepped into the teaching space for the first part of the shoot, I was surprised about how down to earth she was. With effortless grace, she showed her mastery of the art of fine dining while cracking a few jokes and making the Guardian Life team feel at home.
The female chef
After the shoot, I sat with her in her office space as she sipped on a glass of wine while answering my questions. I asked her why the culinary arts and fine dining space was still a male-dominated field in Nigeria. In her opinion, this fact was true in several professions—oil and gas, music, technology—and not just hers. She mentioned that when she was coming up in the profession, she did not have anyone to look up to as a woman. She said, “Women have their peculiar positives—they get pregnant, they have children, they stay at home, they have to look after the husband and the children and, because of that, many women do not have the time, the energy and the resources to do what I am doing. It’s a very exhausting and exerting profession.”
In her experience, the women she has met in the profession are a lot more reliable than the men.
With these restrictions in view, she spoke about some of the sacrifices she made on this journey. Among them included quitting high-flying jobs as a lawyer at Gio and a consultancy and legal advisory job for Verity Consults in DC, United States. She also had to forgo paying much attention to her fashion sense. With her cropped hair, she has a shower in the morning, washes her hair and jumps into the kitchen to cook or teach her students.
Yet, she made it clear that she doesn’t see these decisions as sacrifices. She said, “They were all things that needed to be done to achieve my fundamental objective which was getting people trained, getting people empowered and building capacity in the hospital space.”
Still sipping on her glass of wine, we talked about her creative process, particularly as it concerns the art of fine dining and interior decor of the culinary academy. She said she has always been described as non-conventional and eccentric because she sees things in places nobody else does.
“I look at an object and I ask myself how I can make it relevant, use it to tell a story, make the hospitality space better and people’s lives better. I take experiences, things I see on the road, in my dreams and I ask myself how I can take it and run with it.”
The bottom line in her opinion is to always take a forensic look at things and look for new ways to excite and entertain people.
African Young Chefs’ Competition
We then dived into the subject of her brainchild, the African Young Chefs’ Competition (AYCC), she had a lot to say.
The first edition of the competition was held last year, and the second edition will hold on May 5th. Alile explained in detail the reasons she began the project in the first place.
“When I decided to start the African Young Chefs Competition, I had a few things in mind. I’m here in my school on some random street in Ikoyi and in a year on an average, I’m imparting knowledge to about 500 people. I told myself I can play globally.”
The decision to go African-wide was also influenced by her trip to the Young Chefs Olympics in India back in 2016. The Culinary Academy represented Nigeria and she said, “I noticed while getting ready for it that we had to deepen the knowledge of our students. We selected students, started training them and they obviously became better than the ones that were not selected because theirs was intense training. The person who finally went to represent us is currently one of my top star students that have graduated from this school.”
From this experience, she was able to gather that the students who were coming to compete at (AYCC) will have the same preparation experience.
She added that, although the focus of the competition is on the ten young chefs competing from various countries, the African Young Chefs Competition also recognises mentors or chef instructors. It also organises leadership building and mentoring seminars for other non-competing chefs who take the training as well as the hundreds of chefs that come to attend.
Alile explained that the feedback she has received from around the world is a major achievement for her. Currently, the Academy is gearing up to compete with other continent winners from competitions like the European Young Chef Award and the American Young Chef Competition.
Speaking of the negatives, she mentioned that it cost a lot of money to run and it is self-funded. Although she has no problem with that. She said, “You will expect that people will see what you’re doing and want to be a part of it.”
Yet, this hasn’t slowed her down one bit because she understands the reach the Academy has.
Alile has a book to her name. She is the author of Tale in a Pie, which is called “the most scandalous story cookbook out there”. Her major inspiration for the book came from her blog, Tiyan Cooks, where she talks about all sorts of things that usually culminate in food.
“Usually I take things from my experiences and discussions I have with people and create a story around it and, at the end of it, I write a recipe relating to that story. It is undoubtedly a very vocal book because its bold in areas of life that people don’t necessarily talk about,” she noted.
She also revealed preparations for another book which is due for release next year.
To the young female chef
We talked about the ways her knowledge of the female peculiarities affects the way she handles her female students. Her approach is very simple: tough love.
“There are not many women in this profession and I’ve explained the peculiarities earlier. So, when they come to me emphasising those peculiarities as reasons for not being able to do certain things, I ignore them. I tell them that presenting these things as excuses is the reason why we are not where we should be.
It’s tough love and they sometimes think I’m wicked; after all, I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so I do not understand. But the truth is, these are the excuses stopping us from getting to where we are meant to be.” she said passionately.
She also added that the biggest problem women in the industry have is the women themselves. She explained that when women give these excuses, they project a vulnerability that the men prey on and use to push themselves further.
Her advice to women is to keep their feminine essence while remaining fierce. Because, as she mentioned earlier, the women in the profession are more reliable than the men.
The future for Tiyan Alile
To Alile, she hasn’t achieved all that she set out to achieve. She laid emphasis on the fact that, in the beginning, she had fundamental objectives and, in the process of working on those objectives, she achieved many other things.
One concrete thing she wants to achieve in future is to train more people. She said, “In my career, through various mediums—seminars, demos, mentoring, classes—I have trained a decent number of 6,000 people. If I can get that number up to 60,000, I’ll pat myself on the back.”
She also added that she would like her influence to grow beyond Africa, hinting that Michelin Guides—a prestigious book published by the Michelin tyre company which awards Michelin stars for excellence to a select few establishments in the art of fine dining—doesn’t rate Africa, not to mention Nigeria. Alile would love to be one of the first rated chefs or restaurant owners in Africa.
In the end, Alile admitted that she can’t conceive all that is ahead of her, but she is ever willing to embrace the new experiences as they come.