The more creative we are, the more people are interested in us, Chef Jeff
Jeffery Kanu might not ring a bell but Chef Jeff, the brain behind Severino Concepts Ltd just might. Aiming to break even more barriers, he tells TOBI AWODIPE of his experiences, difficulties and future hopes and plans.
Can we meet you?
My name is Jeffrey Kanu, otherwise known as chef Jeff. I am a private chef with a focus on international cuisine. I used to be an investment banker before moving into the field of food and its something I’ve always had s passion for, for quite a long time.
So how was the transition moving from banking to cooking?
Investment banking was fun but at the same time I used to still have regular food events where I’ll just invite people over for a big foodies night once a month. But it got to a stage whereby investment banking kind of fizzled out but I still had the passion for food, so something that has always been on the side for me became my main focus. I threw my heart and soul into it, into being the best and here we are today.
So how has the experience of being a chef been for you?
It has been a big learning curve, a couple of challenges, some bad days, some good days, but the key thing is that it has always been very entertaining, its fun when you’re able to plan out a menu and execute for different clients. Being a private chef gives you more dynamism; you’re not stuck with a set menu like a restaurant would be, so to speak. There’s a very big foodie culture growing in Nigeria and there’s quite a few other private chefs who are reflecting on that basis and I think it’s about just being able to always deliver good flavor and presentation to your clients and so that’s the fun I’ve been having so far. I’ve been doing most of this by myself but I have a team I can get in place whenever I need to but there’s just something about being hands-on with everything. From your suppliers to the supply chain management, your execution to the menu planning process that makes it really great.
You recently moved back to Nigeria. How has it been so far?
I moved back to Nigeria in 2008 and I was still within the banking field. It wasn’t until a year ago that I made the transition fully. I started my investment banking career with Morgan-Stanley in London before moving over here then I worked with a few other investment banks like ARM and Afri Invest before starting my own company and focusing on the food side of things. My company is called Severino Concepts Ltd. It’s called that because it’s not just about the food, I also dabble in a little bit of fitness. We are based in Victoria Island, but for the food side of it, I am based wherever your kitchen is or wherever the event is being held.
What does being a private chef really mean?
It basically means you have clientele you’re cooking for, either within their homes or you have events that are happening which you cater exclusively for. But in a restaurant, you’ll have a set chef there, a set menu that’s going on but in a private chef space, you’ll have control over your clients diet or any special needs or allergies.
How lucrative is it being a chef?
It’s a great space to be in if you have a passion for food. Anybody can be taught to cook; the key thing is to have more innovation that is more than that. You need to be able to work under a lot of pressure and keep your cool. What separates a chef from the person offering you small chops is that we are offering you a total package, giving you things you may not be able to find elsewhere, things you might not want to put in much effort into doing on your own. Because of all these, there is a premium we charge, it’s also about the chef’s time, the labour that goes into the whole process. It’s a great field to be in financially.
Where did you train?
I am actually self-taught. It has always been about the passion. When I was in college, I pored through cookbooks and studied great chefs like Gordon Ramsay and tried to tow their line. I’ve worked under a couple of chefs to gain experience, Chef Nevine who used to be the chef for the Wheatbaker hotel who worked under Gordon Ramsay. It was a great experience because you get to learn that there is a whole more to the cooking process.
What are the challenges you face in your line of work?
This is not a mass market and so, you are not going to find jollof rice on the menu because I feel if you want that, you can find it anywhere. I could cook it if I wanted but I wont because regular restaurants and even the woman on your street can give you that and I don’t think I want to narrow myself in a box when there are millions of options I could choose from. The dollar rate is another big problem, especially when I have to fly in some ingredients like oysters and mussels and this affects the rate. Sometimes, the items come late even when pre-ordered and mess up plans, so you have to have a back up plan. Getting a team that understands you, your vision is also very tricky and sometimes having the wrong sous chef can cause a lot of unwanted drama for you. I don’t mind not being within the mass market space, we are growing and I am happy about that.
Do you dabble in Nigerian cuisine at all?
I do stuff with plantain and puffpuff sometimes, there is a lot you can do with them. Rather than doing the traditional puffpuff, how about you fill it with chocolate? Puffpuff exists in many places in the world but under different names. In America, they are called fried dough balls (which is what they are) which they dip in black coffee. Im a British born Nigerian, nothing will change that but if my style is international, that is what I will do. I like to have a skill set that would allow me work in any country in the world and relate with clients on that basis.
Any plans to open in a restaurant in the near future?
I might do that but I would train and put a chef there to give me the freedom to practice in the private space. Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver are prime examples of how I want to operate. Oliver for instance has kitchens and restaurants and is still doing TV, writing books and still has people in those places overseeing things. I like that model and might one day settle into one particular spot and focus. I like to be dynamic really and the private space gives me the opportunity to be as dynamic as I want.
Any plans to write a cookbook?
I have been thinking about doing that but I already have some recipes posted online. It’s a work in progress and its really about finding the things that I like the most, not the usual things because I am all about whatever is unusual but works, so its about finding the right balance and putting it out there.
Are Nigerians embracing the private chef culture?
Yes, they are because a lot of people are jumping on the fitness bandwagon these days and want to have someone cater and provide advice everyday of for a set number of days. I also provide advisory services to people and restaurants looking to reconstruct their menu or help with supply chain management. The good thing is the word of mouth, when someone likes your services, they pass it on to others and that makes it grow.
Have you participated in any cooking exhibition in Nigeria?
Yes, I participated in a chef cook off organized by one of the banks which had a whole bunch of chefs either exhibiting or holding classes or doing a chef face off which I participated in. I have also participated in several other events, private and otherwise. It has been fun and educational.
Are there any chefs you look up to and probably want to work with here?
Most of us on the private side already know each other and are friends and support ourselves as much as we can in different areas. I’m impressed with what Alex Okey is doing with pastries as well as chef Moteda. Its all about encouraging each other and keeping things creative because the more we are continually creative, the more people are interested in us so we need each other to drive each other in this space.