Tunde Wey's Nigerian food road trip comes to Chicago | Bleader

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tunde Wey's Nigerian food road trip comes to Chicago

Posted By on 10.28.14 at 07:30 AM

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If you've traveled outside the prosperous west, you've met the kind of entrepreneur that emerging economies tend to produce—the cabdriver who's also a travel agent, a caterer, a handyman, a schoolteacher . . .

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Tunde Wey has lived in Detroit since his teens, but you get a whiff of that same kind of entrepreneurial fervor from talking to him about the restaurants he's helped launch, while also working as a writer—and as a player for the Detroit City Futbol League. He's not really a chef, so much as he's someone who likes creating restaurants where interesting things might happen. Or, in the case of the Nigerian pop-ups he'll be doing in Chicago in early November, the nonrestaurant dinner parties where something more than just dining might happen.

Wey made a name in Detroit as a restaurateur last year by cofounding (revolver), parentheses included, a farm-to-table restaurant space in Hamtramck where different chefs would take over for a week at a time, while he and his partner, Peter Dalinowski, managed ticket sales and other logistics to provide a consistent ongoing experience. This year he launched a series of pop-ups for a restaurant concept focusing on Nigerian barbecue called Lagos; a month ago he sold his interest in (revolver) to Dalinowski, and is on the road doing pop-ups to test and refine the cooking and experience behind Lagos. He'll have two dinners in the Chicago area; the smaller one on Saturday, November 1 is sold out, but the larger one, in the Ampersand space behind Kinmont on Sunday, November 2, has tickets available here. I met up with him at Asado Coffee in Wicker Park to find out more.

Michael Gebert: Tell me about (revolver) and Lagos.

Tunde Wey: We started (revolver) about a year ago. Neither of us had any sort of restaurant ownership experience. [Peter] had worked in restaurants going to college, I hadn't really worked in any restaurants, though my first job ever, when I was 18 or 19, was at Wendy's. That was a seminal experience—my wrist skills at flipping burgers are amazing.

We knew a lot of people in the area who were chefs or cooks, but didn't have a place to showcase their talents. So we needed a place to sort of standardize and formalize the experience from the diner's perspective, so that's what we provided, this space with an ever-changing menu, but a consistent experience. The same service, which was myself and my partner, the same venue, the same sort of relaxed feel.

We did that for a year. And on September 27, which was exactly the one year anniversary of the business, I left, I'm selling my shares to my partner. And at first I didn't know how to define myself, after a year of saying my name is Tunde, I'm the co-owner of (revolver). I was just at home hanging out with friends. And my friend, she's someone who used to live in Detroit and now lives in New Orleans, asked me if I wanted to go on a road trip. And I said yes, we took a road trip to New Orleans, and of course I'm cooking some Nigerian food for us and I thought, shit, I should just do the same thing in Chicago. And before I knew it, I was planning to go to different cities to cook Nigerian food.

The food we served at (revolver) kind of skewed to modern American cuisine. Sort of fashionable food in its culinary style, presentational style. And about six months ago, I guess I was just retreating back to authentic, greasy, regional food that I grew up on. So I started cooking that, and we had a series of pop-ups, served about a hundred people each time. And I wanted to move it from this kind of raucous party, which is fun, but I wanted a sort of more intimate raucous party, 15 or 20 people, and take my time and really enjoy the cooking. And I wanted to take charge of what I wanted Lagos to be, which is unapologetic Nigerian food. To not compromise, but also to not be confrontational at the same time—food isn't that serious.

If I want to serve, say, tripe. A lot of people may not like tripe, but that's what I grew up eating. When you're serving so many people, you have to make a lot of accommodations. Now it's just family style, eaten in a communal setting, and there are no substitutions—a lot of the dishes contain seafood, so there are no vegetarian options. It's cooking the food as I grew up eating it, and I enjoy it.

Do people know how to eat Nigerian food when you serve it?

You know, my first language is English, but Nigerian English is influenced by the tribal languages, and there's an expression when you give someone a new dish and they say how do I eat this? And you answer, with your mouth.

I don't think there's anything special or exotic about it. There's a culinary trend now to really parse flavors and experience every note. I can really only tell you a couple of things about the food—is it burnt? Is it too salty? It's very simple food. Very simple.

You billed the Lagos pop-ups as barbecue. What part of it is barbecue?

I want to say, this is part of the soul-searching process. At the beginning, when I thought about what I wanted it to be, I purposely said barbecue as a marketing angle. Let me try this and it will appeal to a lot of people, to a lot of Americans. Everybody knows barbecue. And there is a dish in Nigeria called suya, it's grilled meats, thinly sliced meats covered in a dry rub made of ginger, peppers, peanuts, and other dry spices. So technically it's not a barbecue, it's just grilled, but I called it Nigerian barbecue as an entry point for people.

And then I realized that I'm not trying to appeal to everybody, I'm just trying to get people comfortable with things that are new. In the last couple of dinners, I haven't served quote-unquote barbecue, I just served the side dishes, which have always been the focus, even when we served the grilled meats. I don't want to use any sort of trick language to get you in the door. I just want to be as explicit as possible with the food, the music, the atmosphere, that this is what it is, it's Nigerian food, give it a try.

You say side dishes, is that how Nigerians think of it: a meat and a couple of vegetables make a plate?

No, they don't. I don't speak for all Nigerians because it's a big country, but when I grew up, say, if we had a dish of jollof rice and fried plantains, and some kind of meats, beef or chicken, all piled on the plate. And it was considered rude to eat your meat first. Everything came together. And this is reflective of what I'm trying to do with Lagos—everything is a comprehensive experience. There are no side dishes and main dishes, this is what it is. So like if there's egusi, which is stewed spinach and ground melon seeds, you eat it with a starch or with rice. But the starch you couldn't eat by itself because it has no flavor.

So there is this idea of giving a full meal—everything is a meal. There's no opportunity to parse or break down—all the flavors are supposed to be combined and enjoyed together.

So tell me what all you're serving at the dinners.

I'm serving jollof rice, which after spending time in New Orleans, is really like a jambalaya. I'm serving a goat pepper soup, with three or four kinds of peppers, I guess the closest thing to that would be like a gumbo minus the seafood. I'm doing fried plantains and egusi stew. I'm doing asun, which is like peppered goat meat, and then I'm doing something called frijon, which is not really very popular but I had it a lot growing up. It's black beans with coconut. It's a holiday dish, we used to have it on Good Friday when I was growing up.

We have a few Nigerian restaurants here. I'm not going to say many people have been to them, but we have them, mostly for cab drivers or whatever. What's different about the way you're doing Nigerian food from going to one of them?

Nigerian food is a misnomer in so many ways. First of all because Nigeria itself, the borders of the country in a sense were arbitrarily designated. It's more like regional cuisine, and in the region where this food is served and prepared, there are different ways of doing it. It's not like a burger where you go here or there, it's basically the same.

I think the thing that differentiates the pop-up from other restaurants is in the food. It is the attitude that I am presenting. I don't want to fetishize the food, I don't want to exoticize it, I'm not interested in people participating in some kind of voyeuristic exercise.

A friend of mine was talking about how the expectation for ethnic food in terms of price and setting is different from the expectation for European, continental cuisine. So if you spend fifty bucks on an Italian dinner, that's okay, but spending it on Nigerian food or Mexican food—without getting too race-conscious, on food from brown peoples or indigenous peoples. People have the expectation that it should be a certain way—with dirt and grit.

And it's another thing about being a trained chef—I understand that if you're cooking French food, that training is required. But the best cooks that I know are my mother, my aunt, my father. They had a little training, but that doesn't diminish the amount of work and expertise that they possess. There's a lot of effort that goes into food like this. There's a lot of institutional knowledge that gets passed down, that you should pay a premium for. I'm not trying to sensationalize the food, I'm not trying to make modern cuisine out of it on a white plate, deconstructed plantains. This is how the food tastes, and it should be respected as what it is.

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