I’m entrepreneur with focus on food business – Chef Eros
Tolulope Erogbogbo, popularly known as Chef Eros, is a professional chef, who is passionate about putting Nigerian food on the world map. He is Shoprite Nigeria’s first ever brand ambassador. He started by selling seasoned chicken to his schoolmates, while pursuing a degree in International Business Management in the United Kingdom. In this interview with DANIEL ANAZIA, the foodie, as he described himself, talked about passion for the food industry, his recently opened Ile Eros in Lekki, challenges and successes so far.
Talking about culinary experience in Nigeria, the name Chef Eros resonates. Who is Chef Eros?
My name is Tolulope Erogbogbo, and I am the Founder and Executive Chef at Cookiejar Bakery, Eros & Gomets Foods and recently opened Ile Eros, an authentic Nigeria restaurant. I am 31 years old. I’m not yet married. I come from Ikorodu in Lagos. I like to say I’m ‘half’ Yoruba, ‘quarter’ Edo and ‘quarter’ Calabar. My mother is partly Edo and partly Calabar, while my father is Yoruba. So, I’m omo Eko pataki.
At what age did your journey as a chef begin?
It’s tricky to say I started the journey at a particular age. I have always been involved in food from a very tender age. I started my first ever venture into food at the age of 13, when I started selling cheese balls. I used to buy cheese balls and sell to my tock shop mates in secondary school at a time. That was my first ever business and my mother was my partner. She is still my partner now. We have been working together for some years. When I relocated to the United Kingdom (UK) for my degree programme in International Business Management, I was nicknamed the ‘chicken guy’ because I started a chicken business.
I would season the chicken and put them in Ziploc bags with cooking instructions and sold to students. My target audience was the Indians, Lebanese; basically non-Nigerians, who found those flavours super-exciting.I also found out Nigerians were pricing me like tomatoes. It seems they did not understand I was trying to hustle there. I was doing that while also studying. I was living with a friend then. His name was Alex, a bartender. Sometimes, we would make cocktail at
home, and often times, his mixture of flavours fascinated me.I wanted to learn that when I got a job as a bartender but I was only at the bar for three months before I was moved into the kitchen. I was really and still fascinated by the fire, stainless and chaos in the kitchen.
You may not understand the chaos, but when the food came out in a plate, it would look perfect. I’m a huge foodie, I love to go out and eat. I have always been intrigued by the process of creating culinary experience, which is what I have set out to do over the last 12 years of being in the industry in Nigeria. My main objective is to deliver an unforgettable Nigerian culinary experience.
In Nigeria, the food industry is a huge one with a large market, which is yet to be fully harnessed. What is your take on this?
It’s just like the country itself. It is an emerging market, and it is a fast growing industry. I believe it is one of the fastest growing industries at the moment. Food is one of those three things that no human being can live without. You can’t live without shelter, clothing and food. They are three basic needs of man. Food is key to the human existence. If you don’t have shelter, you can squat somewhere. If you have only one cloth, you can keep recycling it. But, food is very important. If you don’t eat for a long period of time, it might result in a critical health disorder or even death. The human body is conditioned in such a way that it is impossible for it to survive without food. If there is huge demand for food, it is also understandable that the supply meets up with the demand without creating deficit.
In an economy like Nigeria’s, where it is difficult to get funding, food business is one of the fastest businesses you can start with little or no capital. As matter of fact, I started my business with N25,000, and today, we are a multi-million naira company. A lot of people have seen the journey of the few chefs and have been inspired by it so much so that I can advise that if you are out of a job, or you are not getting enough on the job, start a snack business and deliver to your friends. Before you know it, orders will be coming. There is enough space for everyone. We are a country with a population of about 200 million people. People need food. The demand is really huge.
How did your parents react to your resolve to become a chef?
My parents have always been very supportive. They would just advise and not enforce. When I was growing up and wanted to go the university and study architecture, my father said no, but advised that I should study International Business Management (IBM).He left me with a caveat, that the choice was mine. I listened to him and studied IBM. My mother likes to host people. For her, it was a dream come true. Owning a restaurant had always been her dream.
My grandmother owned a restaurant and she wanted to do that but her life path couldn’t take her in that direction. She ended up being a pillar to her husband. When I was rounding off my university, she brought the idea of owning a restaurant and I jumped at it. I came back to Nigeria and immediately, invested everything I had saved, along with funds that we raised to start our first project in Ikoyi. The project was called La Cusion, which We embraced in 2018. Even though it didn’t do well, it really set the tone for the rest of my life. I realised that within every passion, there is a challenge. What separates each person’s passion from another is how much attention and dedication he gives to it. People have passion but they don’t necessary succeed. When you combine passion with hard-work and opportunity, you will succeed. My parents were very supportive. My father did not object to it. Unfortunately, he passed on immediately after I started my first business.
You said the first business did not do well. What factors would you say impeded the success of the business?
I probably didn’t have enough knowledge about the things that were important in running the business. I was 21 at the time, and barely knew what it took to run a business. I have only worked in a restaurant abroad. So, I didn’t really know the intricacies of numbers. I thought of hiring people and whatever they said was what I would go with. It was not that bad. I was able to stop immediately I realised it going down the drain. I was able to salvage my investment.
Apart from not having enough knowledge, I didn’t have enough support from those, who were knowledgeable about the industry. Another factor was lack of enough funding. I didn’t have enough money to do all I needed. Power was epileptic and I didn’t have money to buy generating sets. This affected our service delivery. I started with old equipment. One month into the business, freezer, cooker, and burner were all broke down. It was from one challenge to another. I didn’t have an effective management, so it was difficult to do both. Till today, I still face the challenge of manpower and skilled labour. Getting skilled manpower that is able to deliver is very difficult.
Despite all these challenges, did you at some point think of quitting?
Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, I suspended everything for a year. I was done with food. After the experience, it was like, this is not for me. I didn’t want to this. But deep inside of me, I still knew I was an entrepreneur. I convinced my brother in-law to start a business with me. It was a real estate, energy and alternative business. I was baking baking cookies. We rented an office, it was turned into a bakery. At that point, it was clear to my family that my passion was food. More importantly, my passion was the business of food not just necessary the creation of food. I’m not just a chef. The word chef for me to identify that I cook but that doesn’t define what I do or who I’m. I’m an entrepreneur, whose focus is on food and beverages. I’m trying to build one of the biggest world-class food and beverage companies in the world playing in the African space. It starts with paying your dues. I have done everything, from running a bakery to catering events, running a restaurant, servicing high net-worth individuals, doing food tours around the world, and producing my own products and packages, which are going to be the biggest earners for us before we move into the Fast Moving Consumable Goods (FMCG) space and gradually, starts to expand our business into production of products that we are making right now, with our own sauce and spices.
You recently opened your restaurant, named Ile Eros. What informed this nomenclature?
First, the name came because I wanted a Nigerian restaurant with a modern twist. Iwanted a name that resonates with Nigeria, a name that meant something to me and my family. In the process of trying to select a name, it became clear that what I had built over the years was a household name, with a house that contains different food products and services.
I was discussing with my girlfriend about the name, and she said ‘why don’t you call it house?’
As matter of fact, why don’t we look for the right name of house in Yoruba and that is how the name Ile came up. Ile Eros means the ‘House of Eros’. Eros means love, so when translated it means the house of love.
You constantly said you are a foodie, what is your definition of food?
Food sustains life, pleasure and growth. It is everything a man needs to achieve his goals daily. Food is everything you need while getting out in the morning and coming back home in the evening. It is the energy you need to satisfy personal pleasures, cravings and the needs of other people in your life: your wife, kids, parents, siblings, friends, especially when you take them out for lunch or dinner. Through food, you are able to communicate or appeal. The most important conversations are discussed at the dining table. When a family wants to make a major decision, they do that at dinner. When a man wants to propose to his fiancée, it could be done during a lunch or dinner. Also, when people want to close deals, they usually do it over lunch or dinner.
What do you mean by authentic Nigerian cuisine? What should Nigerians expect from Ile Eros aside from what already exist out there in the food industry?
Like I said earlier, Ile Eros is an authentic Nigerian restaurant with modern twist, and what that means is that we are not a fusion restaurant. We wanted it to be very clear to the public that we are not a restaurant that fuses Nigerian food with Italian, Chinese, French or Spanish foods. We are a restaurant that takes authentic Nigerian foods, be it from the street or from your grandmother’s pot and gives them a modern twist, usually in the preparation and in the presentation. For example, we take your classic street food such as Ewa Agoyin, cook it with so much love. I love plantain for example, so for me it is that little sweet goodness that whenever I’m making Ewa Agoyin, I chop it into the beans to give that little burst of sweetness. In our presentation, we take the Ewa Agoyin and roll it into a ball and coat it on the outside with garri. What I have served you is beans and garri in twisted way. We give a nice crust on the outside and put on the same bed of classic Agoyin sauce that has been fused with some sea food stock. That is authentic Nigerian food but when you look at it, it’s like modern French food.
What are the factors that have kept you pushing and breaking new grounds, as an entrepreneur?
I can say destiny and my vision, which have been very clear from day one. It is going to be one of the biggest food and beverage companies in the world. Every time I go to bed, I imagine our skyscraper edifice in Eko Atlantic, overlooking the water with all or businesses on different floors. The vision pushes me. I can’t wait for the next morning to go into my office and continue my preparation to move into the permanent site.
Another thing is feedback from people. When I watch people eat my food and I hear them talk about it, it gives me so much joy. Recently, I went out and somebody said to me, he remembered the first day he met me 10 years ago, and he remembered the words I used to describe a cake that I made and how much it has inspired him and made him respect the art and craft of food. He said it was a naked cake. It means you could see every layer inside the cake. Each layer was a different flavour and the cream was also a different flavour. It was made for a friend named Orire Omatshola. He reminded me of how I described the cake and the different layers relating to Orire as a beautiful mess. So, the nakedness of the cake showed you the mess on the inside. And that is kind of the person Orire is. She is a very open person. Listening to him was enough for the day. I didn’t need to see how much money the restaurant generated for the day, I was satisfied. Every time I have conversations with my guests and I hear their feedback on every dish, it gives so much joy and I just want to keep doing that.