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The All-Nigerian Restaurant
Not every time rice and stew.
The closest I’ve come to running a restaurant is cooking for my roommates in school – it probably sucked, especially when it wasn't concoction spag. I may not have the talent or coordination to run a restaurant, but I always have an appetite.
If you spent lockdown in Nigeria, chances are that you had only a handful of meals in rotation – rice or some other starches, and stew with two other soups.
My existential lockdown question was; if Nigeria is the third most diverse country in the world with over 500 languages and probably as many food options, why am I stuck with only a handful of choices?
It's not like I intend to cook all of them – no one can – but it'd be nice to have the option to order whichever one you want, wherever you are. Besides the occasional restaurant doing the usual "local dishes here" and serving only Pounded yam, Amala, and the occasional starch, it's hard to find the other dozens of choices in one spot. So what would it look like if I could? If a restaurant could serve every Nigerian meal that exists? What would an actual all-Nigerian restaurant look like?
What Makes A Restaurant A Restaurant?
“In Lagos? Vibes.” That’s Toni, she manages a restaurant called Atmosphere. My favourite picks on their menu are the Grilled Fish and Imoteda’s Bowl. Beyond vibes, “food and drinks, either super authentic or innovative.”
“By simple and authentic drink, you mean like Zobo,” I asked. “Versus an innovative drink like Danfo Red, a cocktail I have just made up?”
“Yup. But Zobo seems too basic for Lagos. I feel like it’d have to be authentic cuisine in a place that cuisine isn’t typically from.”
I disagree with the Zobo part, but “tell me more.”
“If we’re going the super innovative route we can think about Nok and Ile Eros. It’s Nigerian food – not authentic or mediocre, but new and exciting.”
Is it safe to say that a restaurant is a restaurant because of what it serves, where it serves it, and how it presents it?
"Yes, I agree with this."
A Restaurant Needs A Menu.
To know what fits into the menu of our restaurant, we’d have to figure out all the Nigerian food that actually exists. It took some preliminary work by Ada and long hours by Fateemah to dig out everything that we curated into this sheet. It’s still rough and most likely incomplete, but across 36 states, we found over 50 mains, and over 60 soups and sides.
From Margi Special in Borno to Pounded Yam and Afang in Cross River, there’s more than enough diversity on the menu to never try a food combo twice for a whole year.
"If someone can take one main and one side or soup, that's 3,000 food combos," Bolaji, my calculator in residence said, perhaps disappointed at how basic this math problem was when I asked her about it.
"This calculation changes if they can take two sides for instance." After crunching the numbers, the number of possible combos went up to "50 times 1770."
The point is that a physical menu is impossible. That leaves us with a digital menu.
“We can find the categorization mechanism,” said Ted, a designer. “Essentially, I’ll take each meal and tag it," Ope, another designer said. "Town, state, ingredients, type of meal. Usually, a pattern will emerge, or even multiples. Then I choose which one I think is a stronger story.”
I like it.
You can do a “Here’s a meal from the south that doesn’t have fish and is a swallow and is light on calories. Dietary information will be really interesting too because we don’t have that for local meals.”
“But is this an ethnic spin?” Ope had more questions, “are we looking for food from their hometown? Out of curiosity or nostalgia?”
The chances are that, if this were an all-Nigerian restaurant, the average Nigerian wouldn't have a clue how much food even exists, a menu that optimises for discovery would be better. For example, I bet you didn't know guinea corn swallow is a thing in Makurdi. It goes well with Edika-Ikong, just in case you're looking to try it.
So, instead of making a large search box for people to look for food they're already used to, mostly Jollof Rice, hit them with a dedicated editorial about Banga Rice to drum up interest. Taste is, after all, the last sense to engage with food.
A Restaurant Needs A Kitchen.
"Uhm, I think that would be literally impossible. Your kitchen would have to be half the size of Heathrow." That's Imoteda, she's a chef who likes fusion food, and names her favourite bowls on her menus after herself.
"Let me run through (the parts of a kitchen) from the entrance: Entryway, sitting space, waiter station, pass, kitchen, cold storage, dry storage, a couple of offices, loading area in the back. Throw in a prep kitchen and a service kitchen."
And to cook everything, "you'd need a literal army of chefs. Also, consider the difficulty in making certain foods and the prep process. Ekpang Nkukwo alone will stress you out."
I once witnessed the cooking of about 20 servings of Ekpang Nkukwo, a water yam porridge you'll find in South-south's Cross River and Akwa Ibom. It took one chef, two assistants and over three hours to whip together. In Ijebu, you'll find another variation, Ikokore — it's Ekpang-lite in flavour and stress.
Variations are another riot. "Everyone in Nigeria seems to make Egusi. The versions I've seen come out of the north look nothing like what I've seen as a Yoruba person. You'd be hard-pressed to find a chef that can execute one thousand dishes satisfactorily, much less excellently."
"A good way to go about it," she explained, "would be to breakdown the dishes into their components and have different teams working on components."
Imoteda was on a roll.
"Take beef, for example, a lot of our foods use beef and its stock. There'd be a meat team, and all they'd do is create different forms of meat you need – braised, boiled, skewered, deboned, bone on, etc."
"So, if I want to make Suya, the Yaji is ready, the beef is fillet and good to go, there'd be a team in charge of firing up kitchen equipment. So all I need to do is grab the already prepped elements and throw them on the grill, then pass it to the team that would plate it. Same for proteins, and then a vegetable team."
"These teams would be massive and just churn out kilos after kilos of prepped goods. Then you'd have smaller teams by specialisations. Sauce teams – the same base you use for stew and Jollof Rice can be used for a solid number of dishes. It should run like a well-oiled machine."
An actual battalion.
"It would be an almost impossible undertaking, Love."
A Restaurant Needs Guests.
"You have no real idea of how people would order, and chances are people will stick to what they know," Imoteda said. "This means you'll have a lot of spoilage cause you have to prep each dish as though people are coming in to order it."
If I have only a handful of staples in rotation, chances are that I'm not special, and most people do. Running a restaurant like this would require actual education about these food options.
"You'll need targeted in-store advertising and activations around particular food. With the size of your menu, you would have to do daily, and that'd take you years to get through. You could also just run the restaurant focusing on a particular region and only serve food from that region so people have no choice but to order that."
"You mean like South-south January or South-south week?" I asked.
"South-south is huge dear. I'm thinking something like Auchi Week."
And sourcing for ingredients? "Your procurement process will be a logistical nightmare. You'll need runners to travel to the far corners of Nigeria for grocery and hundreds of storekeepers to keep track of supply."
Our all-Nigerian restaurant is in fact a carnival. Daily. "A Disneyland for Nigerian food," she said.
A Decentralised Kitchen.
To break my cycle of horridly concocted staples during the lockdown, I started buying soups on Instagram. For a time, I knew who had the best Ayamase and whose Egusi had the least oil. I bought whatever I was either too busy or talentless to make. Everyone's kitchen became mine for a fee.
We might not be able to manage a kitchen staff the size of a battalion, or a horde of grocery hunters. We also can't guarantee that one Chef has the hands for dozens of Egusi variants. We don't have to.
Instead of one giant kitchen, we'll have a thousand. It's not one chef trying to master dozens of soups, just one person who needs to know how to make the best possible Banga.
I found this website called Eatwith.com. Before the pandemic, it used to be mostly an Airbnb of sorts, but for food – you book dining experiences in people's homes – I found less than 10 listings in Africa, but still, I found our food. If EatWith invites you over, this one – let's call it EatIn – brings homemade cooking to you.
Think of it like Jumia Food or Door Dash – but for individuals.
They tend to work like this: Website > Location > Restaurant > Food. That is, user comes, the user enters their location, the user chooses the restaurant, the user selects food option.
But how would an EatIn work, especially since, as Imoteda said, we have a tendency to pick only the familiar? It's the activations and carefully curated experience.
So, what would an all-Nigerian restaurant look like? We already know it won't be physical. It'd be a kitchen, or maybe 5,000 kitchens.
Delivery-only restaurants were all the rage during the lockdown, and it doesn't look like that'd be changing soon. There's a fancy name for it now – Cloud Kitchens – but it doesn't look like it's going anywhere. A fancy market research firm says the market could be worth a trillion dollars by the end of this decade.
The question is no longer whether we want to run a kitchen half the size of Heathrow, the question is now how many sleeper kitchens are possible to activate, and how many people's stomachs they can fill.
It's not just someone making Tuwon Masala in Lagos, it'd also be another person making Amala in Atlanta. It'd be Tobi Smith's Asun in Houston or Mai Suya in Madrid. As long as there's a person willing to do the labour of love in somewhere, and there's someone available to deliver. As long as there's a customer with longing and an appetite, the all-Nigerian restaurant will be there, everywhere. Heck, it might not even be an all-Nigerian Restaurant. I want me some Kenyan Pilau, and some Senegalese Dibiterie won't hurt. Raise an all-African restaurant.
Remember when TikTok went crazy over Fufu and Egusi? I wonder what it'd look like if they just had one place to find everything. A wiki for food, but also Gokada-able or Doordashable – homemade food, delivered to you.
If you're in the mood for a fun weekend experiment, gather your friends, take a stab at it, and see where it leads. As for me, I'm going to boil rice and defrost my Ayamase.