Growing up in a Nigerian-Grenadian household, Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick were naturally accustomed to well seasoned food, including Nigerian dishes. And while Nigerian cuisine wasn’t necessarily a daily item on their family’s menu, they always looked forward to their grandmother’s pepper soup.
“We have particularly fond memories of her pepper soup, which was a proper eye-waterer,” Emeka says.
A few years ago, inspired by a seeming dearth of Nigerian food that they had such fond memories of growing up in the United Kingdom, the duo started talking about setting up a food business that would put Nigerian cuisine on the map, but they hadn’t worked out how to bring it to scale it and make it more mainstream. They knew they couldn’t compromise on what they wanted to offer, including visually attractive dishes and a stimulating environment that would give people the opportunity to explore Nigerian cuisine, as well as the culture. It was only when they struck upon the idea of adapting smaller appetizing plates – tapas style – that they felt they were heading in the right direction.
Their idea behind this fusion was a reflection of Emeka’s time spent living in Spain, where he fell in love with the tapas social dining culture and relaxed vibe, as well as Ifeyinwa’s travels in the French Caribbean, where she also had an appreciation for a slower pace of life and the ritual of taking time out, especially over meals.
The culmination of their lifelong journeys is Chuku’s, a remarkable Nigerian tapas lounge that the Frederick siblings opened, and is branded to promote a certain mantra — ‘chop, chat, chill’ —- the Chuku’s code which guests are expected to respect. Emeka tells us more about what each word means.
“Chop is the Nigerian pidgin word for ‘eat’. We want our guests to eat good food, try something new, and share it with friends. Chat is for the good conversations we want them to have while catching up with friends and getting to know new people. Chill is about simply sitting down, relaxing and enjoying the good vibes. Everyone is always on-the-go in London, so we wanted to create a chilled out space as an antidote to this.”
The restaurant’s name comes from Emeka’s full name – Chukwuemeka (ch-koo-é-meh-ka), which means “God has done well” in Igbo, their mother’s tribe in Nigeria.
At first glance, Nigerian cooking may appear to be a far departure from this concept. Nigerian meals are usually served in large plates and this nuance was not lost on the sibling partners as they worked to attract both Nigerians and non-Africans alike. “For those who may not be so familiar with [our] cuisine, this can be overwhelming. There are many new ingredients you’ve never seen or heard of before, and there’s lots of it.”
Chuku’s is about more than just African food with a Diasporan twist; its immersive dining experience is a unique offering that sets it apart from other Nigerian and African eateries.
“From the Lagos Monopoly on our bookshelf to our contemporary Nigerian artwork, those who come to Chuku’s typically learn something new,” Emeka explains. “Interestingly enough, we find that those in the Diaspora appear to be most fascinated by our ‘Hall of Fame’ of prominent Nigerians based or born in the UK. When they realize the likes of global pop star Tinie Tempah and the current world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua are Nigerian, they realize they’re part of a special culture. This is empowering, and encourages them to share it with non-Nigerians even more.”
It is important that the lounge’s menu appeals to foodies of all persuasions. So where there’s a growing trend towards vegetarianism in London, the pair has included a number of vegetarian options on the menu. In a single meal, you might eat jollof quinoa and moi moi (a typical Nigerian dish made from pureéd beans and packed full of flavor), topped off with the signature chin chin cheesecake, which is based on the popular Nigerian biscuit-like snack.
Chuku’s continues to push the envelope and sets about to show a global, multi-cultural audience that there is more to Nigeria and the African continent than war and poverty, and is excitedly riding the wave of an African food revolution that is sweeping the world.
“Fine dining African cuisine is also becoming a big thing. In Lagos there’s a place called Nok Alara which serves suya calamari. Social media has opened up the industry with food bloggers filling Instagram feeds with Nigerian food. The likes of 9jafoodie and Dooney’s Kitchen are creating “food porn” dishes daily, and truly pushing the boundaries of what we consider Nigerian food to be. Who would have imagined that a few years ago? And fine dining African caterers are popping up all over London. We’re waiting for the day that the Queen orders Jollof. Hopefully it will be from us!”
As much as the Fredericks excel at showcasing alternative Nigerian cuisine, the siblings are even better at developing a business from concept to reality. It doesn’t hurt that they know each other really well, have grown up together and have spent countless hours working together as kids (most notably learning the entire script of their favorite movie – Cool Runnings). To Emeka, running a business with his sister isn’t really anything new. “We actually work really well as a pair. I always have the crazy, harebrained ideas, and Ifeyinwa always has to reign me in. And then we agree that she’s right. That’s how we were as kids and that’s how we are today.”
The pair see Chuku’s as a family business with a really strong supportive network behind them. “Our parents and other sisters have been instrumental in making our dreams a reality. They’ve played the roles of business mentors, publicists, and waitresses — they are our biggest champions.”
There are many exciting things in store for the growing brand.
“Our next event is on Sunday, April 24 , we’re having an intimate supper-club with a live performance from an upcoming British-Nigerian singer-songwriter who has also been inspired by her travels to Spain. Our last one was a sell out and we’re very much looking forward to this one as well.”
In the summer, they will be holding the lounge’s first residency, which will allow them to be open a couple of nights a week for at least a month at a cool venue in the heart of London’s trendy East End. Over the long term, the duo is planning to open their own permanent restaurant space – the first of many in the UK. And then, they will take Nigerian tapas across the world.
“Spain and France would be the first places we’d want to take our lounge concept to, and then who knows? You may see us in Cali real soon!”
Image: Courtesy Emeka Frederick
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