Podcast Episode 103

Africa’s Culinary Revolution: How an Escoffier Grad Is Leading Culinary Innovation in Nigeria

Bekei Ijewere | 55 Minutes | March 5, 2024

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Bekei Ijewere, an Escoffier graduate and founder of Beks Culinary Academy in Lagos, Nigeria.

What makes Bekei’s story truly captivating is her unconventional path into the culinary realm. Trained initially as a chartered accountant, she seamlessly merged her financial acumen with her deep-rooted passion for the culinary arts. In 2021, Bekei established Beks Culinary Academy, marking the beginning of her mission to revolutionize Africa’s culinary landscape.

Listen as Bekei shares her unique perspective on Africa’s dynamic culinary scene, her commitment to fostering opportunities for women at Beks Culinary Academy, and much more!

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I have the great pleasure of speaking with a truly inspiring guest, Bekei Ijewere, Escoffier graduate and founder of Beks Culinary Academy in Lagos, Nigeria.

Bekei isn’t your typical culinary expert; she’s a chartered accountant who has seamlessly blended her financial acumen with her deep-seated passion for cooking and baking.

With a successful career developing recipes and managing Cakes ‘N’ More, which is a school lunch business located in Nigeria, she decided to take a bold step and establish Beks Culinary Academy in 2021.

Bekei’s vision extends far beyond just running a culinary academy; she’s on a mission to elevate the way we cook and revolutionize the culinary scene in Africa. She’s also committed to raising awareness around gender equality and empowering women in the culinary industry.

So buckle in as we dive in to Bekei’s fascinating story, her vision for Beks Culinary Academy, as well as the culinary landscape in Africa.

And there she is. Good morning.

Bekei Ijewere: Good morning, Kirk. Wow!

Kirk Bachmann: You’re beaming! I’m exhausted from the intro.

Bekei Ijewere: Oh my goodness. That was a fantastic intro. Thank you so much.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s all you. You’re the star of the show. It’s so good to see you.

Bekei Ijewere: It’s good to see you, too. I think it’s a privilege to be here with you, Kirk, because I only saw your name and signature written on all of the president’s [items.] I was on the President’s list all of the semesters. I never thought I would meet you in person, and then today, we’re here.

Kirk Bachmann: To just talk. And there’s so much to talk about. You’re actually in Atlanta, going back home to Nigeria later this month. If you’re okay, I’m going to say congratulations because you’re a grandma!

Bekei Ijewere: Yes! Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: How is your beautiful grandchild?

Bekei Ijewere: She’s doing very well. Her name is Isabella Bekei by the way.

Kirk Bachmann: Of course.

Bekei Ijewere: That was really surprising. That was a really nice thing for my daughter to do. I felt truly honored.

Yes, I’ve been in Atlanta for a while. I actually arrived in the United States in October.

Kirk Bachmann: For graduation.

Bekei Ijewere: Thank you. For the Escoffier graduation ceremony in Boulder. Do you remember, we met physically? It was an awesome day. Then, I do remember I said to you how Escoffier helped me to find my culinary voice. One of the reasons I’m so excited this morning is because we’re actually sitting together, and I’m speaking. My voice is going to be heard.

Changing the Conversation Around African Cuisine

Kirk Bachmann: Yes, it is! It is, and we have so much to talk about.

I wanted to mention, too, I’m on your Instagram page quite a bit. It’s @BeksCookery, by the way. You are so natural on the camera. Your charisma, your love and passion is really contagious. You can’t upstage me today, okay, otherwise Noelle is going to get a new host for the show, and it’s going to be Bekei.

I have to set the stage for all of our listeners – Noelle doesn’t know that I’m going to do this – but it’s important, and it sets the tone for how we met each other. You first reached out to me from Nigeria on September 6 of last year. I probably read your email ten times, and then I read it to other people. You shared your observations, your comments, and your recommendations for our World Cuisine class, specifically the food culture and the cuisine of Africa. Your comments were so relevant. They were so poignant, so polite, and so helpful. You enlightened us around your personal experiences and knowledge. Just a few topics: the fact that Nigeria and most of West Africa that soups and rice are major staples. You talked about fufu soup – is that right? – which is made from yams, cassava, or plantains.

Bekei Ijewere: Yes.

Kirk Bachmann: You also discussed in your note to me that women in Burkina Faso have been making beer for some 5000 years. You talked to me about how in Tanzania that both the women and the men participate in the harvest, and they also brew different sorts of beers. You went on to share information about Malawi in East Africa.

I think my biggest takeaway from our interaction back then was – well, number one, it was extremely helpful for us to enhance our curriculum, to really focus not just on the cuisine of Africa. I think my takeaway was that using the term “Africa” as an umbrella for all cuisine in Africa is probably a mistake because there are so many cultures and different cuisines throughout all of Africa. That was very enlightening to me.

I will say also that in our communication, you let me know then that you would be attending graduation in person with your husband in Boulder. You did that, and it was such a joy to tour you on the campus and to be onstage with you and take photos. Your husband was so dressed up that day. Can I just tell you? Just absolutely beautiful.

Can we spend just a little bit of time with that as a backdrop for you to share a little bit of your passion about the cuisine of Africa? Perhaps explore a little deeper what you were sharing with me a few months ago.

Bekei Ijewere: Wow! Okay. That email to you was a follow-up to my experience during the World Cuisine class that we take when I was on this journey. It was saddening to note that Africa was put on that umbrella. Oftentimes, when my kids were back in high school, the school had to do a yearly program that was termed, “Africa is not a country.” Yes.

Taking from that, while I sat in class that day, we cooked meals from Africa. I said, “Wow! There’s a need to let people know that it can’t put us all under the same umbrella, even in the world of food, even in the culinary world.” It’s interesting that most of us do share similar staples. We all do the grains. We do the beans. Some of us, like in West Africa, we’re doing lots of rice and yams. Of course, we use the smoking technique to cook, the string technique and fermentation. It goes on and on. There are such similarities, but some of us do not pay in the past.

Here is the second thing: the course we had dwelt a bit on what happened in the past. I think there is a need to – you could do like a throwback and make sure we know X, Y, and Z could happen in A, B, and C places in Africa. But now, this is how we have embraced cooking and this is how we cook.

I think that all through Africa, we need to highlight the different spices that we use. In Nigeria for instance, we have a very unique flavor profile. We will do the iru and blend it with the Scotch bonnet peppers – we call them rodo– and some crawfish. That will basically form a unique spice profile for our soups. Then, we would roast the plantains. We can season before we roast. We can season with pepper. We can season with salt. Some people like it really spicy, so we can provide alternatives. We can do milder spice. You can do medium spice. You can do really hot spices. I just figure that talking to you about it should throw more light on how we cook in Africa, the different ways that it’s different from one country to the other.

Of course, we do not expect to have food from all of the countries put in one place, but Africa can be split up into four main categories. You can do the east, the west, the north, and of course, the southern part of Africa.

Kirk Bachmann: I appreciate that. Know, too, that once our episode airs, it will be pushed out to all of our faculty and our students. What’s beautiful about this sort of connection that we have is that it provides a channel for knowledge, for sharing of information across different sectors of people that come from all around the country and the world.

We should talk a minute about your perspectives on the cuisine of the southeast of the United States, being in Atlanta for the last several months. Are you a fan, or are you struggling?

Bekei Ijewere: How can I say this? I haven’t had too many opportunities to explore the cuisine in Atlanta. I must confess. The most I’ve done is tour the Ponce City market. I had a Mexican meal. I don’t really think that counted. I had tacos. It was quite nice. I did enjoy it.

You asked how I spent my time through this season. I actually decided to run an online class. Okay? I promised my students almost 100 recipes. I’ve been so, so busy cooking.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh!

Bekei Ijewere: I cooked so much!

Kirk Bachmann: I had no idea that you were working the whole time that you were there as well. My goodness.

Bekei Ijewere: I really didn’t have time to go out and explore the cuisine in Atlanta.

Childhood Loves

Kirk Bachmann: But you’re still cooking.

We should take this opportunity, Bekei. As I said at the top of the show, your story is fascinating. Your personality is electric. Let’s go back to the very beginning, and let’s talk about you a little bit. What was your childhood like growing up? Did cuisine play an important role in your family unit? What type of meals were served when you were growing up? To wrap all that up, did you always envision yourself starting a career in the culinary arts to share your knowledge with others? How did it all come about?

Bekei Ijewere: Growing up was a very happy place. I was in a small family unit, just my mom and my siblings. I have three siblings. We grew up in Benin City. We lived on this street where every family knew each other. It was the typical space where you say, “It takes a village to groom a child.” That’s the kind of setting I grew up in.

You would often find us outside playing. We had a lot of outdoor activities. Because my mom was a head teacher, she actually had this mantra that “the devil finds work for the idle hands.” She would often keep us occupied with board games. I played a lot of board games like Scrabble, Monopoly, chess. We had this local game called Ayo. Ayo has some round circles on a board, and it has round seeds and you just go around and then whatever. You determine the winner after a certain number of rounds. That was the setting I grew up in.

Then what we ate was actually not too different from what we eat today. We ate the same rice although at that time rice would occur perhaps on Sundays and then sometimes twice a week. What is different now is that you can actually eat rice every day. That’s different. We had rice, we had yam, we had the fufu. We had the staples.

It is interesting. My mom, because she could cook.

Kirk Bachmann: She was a good cook.

Bekei Ijewere: Yes, she was a good cook. It was always fantastic, looking forward to dinner time to lunch. One major thing about her is she allowed us to eat what we wanted, especially me, because I was a precious child.

Kirk Bachmann: Were you a difficult child?

Bekei Ijewere: Not at all! Not at all! I was actually easy going. I was the last child. I was the baby of the family. It’s funny; my diet actually revolved around plantains, rice, bread, and my drink, margarine. Those are basically the things I would eat. If I would come home after school and there was no plantain, oh my goodness!

Kirk Bachmann: You’ve got a problem.

Bekei Ijewere: I would cry and my mom would have to provide plantains. That’s how I grew up.

Kirk Bachmann: Let’s go forward to where you studied. You studied accounting at a university in Nigeria. Was culinary on your mind before that, or did it come about a little bit later?

Bekei Ijewere: Oh my goodness! No! At that time in Nigeria, every parent wanted their child to be a professional. You had to study medicine, law, engineering, accountancy. Those were the go-to professionals. Life was such that you finished high school, you must go to university, and you must be a doctor, or an accountant, or a lawyer. We trained to fulfill those expectations. If you were good in math, like I was lucky. I was good in math and I loved mathematics. I loved economics. When I did the basic accounting, I really enjoyed it, so naturally I moved into a university, and I studied accounting. That was how I got into studying accounting.

Now, I have the privilege of hindsight. I would say to you that as young as seven years old, I used to play cooking games, kind of like make believe that I was a chef. I would actually take some sand and stones and wild-growing plants, cut them off, create cooking pots with tins. There [were] these tins that we bought with evaporated milk. So when the milk is used, I saved all of those tins because those become my cooking pots.

So when I think back, I’m like, “Oh my goodness. You had it running in your veins!” It’s what I would spend a lot of time doing, just make believe.

By the time I got to high school, for some reason I loved to bake. My mom had this old cookery book. I would take it, go to the recipes. We actually didn’t have an oven, but I had a friend who had an oven in her home. I would go there, and I would say, “Kate, we need to bake. We need to bake.” It’s so funny. Years back, do you know what Kate said to me? Kate said, “Well, Bekei, all of those days you used to come to my home and bake. We used to tease you a lot behind your back. Little did I know that it was going to be a profession and your business and you would earn good money from it.”

That’s really how far back I got involved in cooking and baking.

Kirk Bachmann: We’ll be sure to send your friend the recording of our little chat here where she gets mentioned. Who’s making fun of who now, right?

Bekei Ijewere: Exactly.

Early Career, plus Cakes ‘N’ More

Kirk Bachmann: Eventually you decided to start your own school. I want to put a timeline around this. How long, and how much do you enjoy working as a professional in the area of accounting? Was that something that was a big part of your life for many years?

Bekei Ijewere: No, not at all. After my graduation from university, I went through…this is how it works back home. For the accounting profession, we have professional qualifying exams which you need to pass before you become a chartered accountant. These exams are really competitive. Right after university, I actually met my husband, and within the year we decided to get married. I knew one thing I had to do was pass my qualifying exams before the wedding.

Long story short, I did pass my qualifying exams a few months after we got married. To build a career as a chartered accountant means you had to work in the banking sector or the oil industry to make the very best of it. That would take a lot of time, so my husband and I decided we wanted one of us to be home for our kids because we wanted to make sure our kids got the best out of us. I’m particularly not too keen on nine-to-five jobs anyway. I opted to be that person to stay home. I actually started out my life being a stay-at-home mom. While I was home, I took on baking and cooking. It was amazing.

After several years, there was a time I needed to be financially independent. There was a lot going on, and it was kind of stressful not being financially independent. I mentioned to a friend of mine, “Oh my goodness. I wonder if this was the right decision.” They were all rising in the banks, getting promoted, all looking great. They could have fun so much, but I was on the home front taking care of things.

And she said to me, “You know what, Bekei? Your cakes are really lovely to eat. You keep doing them for free. Why don’t you make those cakes? I will pay you for them.” That was actually how my cake business started off. I would bake, and I would get paid for them, and my business grew.

Many years down the line, sometimes you reach this place where you seem to be bored, where it seems like, “Okay, I’ve seen it all. I’ve done all of this. I’m stressed out. What next?” I had to do some self-reflection. I realized that I enjoy teaching people. I would tell my friends to bring their kids around during the holiday, and I would teach them how to bake. I said, “Wow! I think I’m going to love teaching people. I will have a cooking school.”

But this is so many years back, almost twenty years ago. I resisted that passion. I continued to grow my businesses, started up the school lunch business. Then covid happened. As covid happened – oh my goodness – most of the businesses shut down, and I was bored. I was just tired of sitting.

My husband and I said, “Oh, this would be a good time to put the foundation for a school together, and actually do it formally.” 2021, we rolled out Beks Culinary Academy.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. We’re going to talk about that. Can I just say before we move into that that I feel like I’m in a lovely therapy session today. Your genuine enthusiasm and love of life and the way you’re a storyteller. I literally could just sit here and listen all day long. You can bill me. This is my therapy session for the day. That could be your next career.

Eventually, around 2021, you decided to start your own school in Nigeria called Cakes ‘n’ More. I love this on your website –

Bekei Ijewere: That was my business.

Kirk Bachmann: That was before ‘21.

Bekei Ijewere: My business, Cakes ‘n’ More. That was school lunches and bake the cakes. The culinary school, Beks Culinary Academy.

Kirk Bachmann: That came in ‘21.

Bekei Ijewere: Yes.

Kirk Bachmann: And Cakes ‘n’ More started when?

Bekei Ijewere: 2003.

Kirk Bachmann: Okay. Long time.

Bekei Ijewere: Long time.

Kirk Bachmann: On your website, it says, and I quote – this is your quote, ‘It is always a joy to see faces light up when we arrive with our branded bags. We source wholesome, fresh ingredients and cook from scratch in our hygienic studio kitchen. Through feedback and research, we have developed a kid-friendly menu which provides options to enable each child to eat exactly what they want.” And you said that earlier, that’s how you grew up. Your mother allowed you and your siblings to eat exactly what you wanted.

Tell me a little bit more about the branded bags.

Bekei Ijewere: Oh. Okay. What we actually do, we cook at our location, and then we have to portion the meals into little bowls, keep them covered, and then we deliver in the schools. Over time, we noticed that the food will often get cold before the kids receive their meal, so we had to do a little bit of research. We got just regular cooler bags, and we got small individual ones, branded them. Every day, we would have to tag each meal. We tag each meal with the child’s name, place them in the bag, zip up, and deliver. That’s where the food stays warm for a longer period of time.

Beks and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Kirk Bachmann: There’s so much to talk about here. I want to talk a little bit about Beks. Because there will be some entrepreneurs, students who want to be entrepreneurs, that will listen to this, what sort of challenges? Let’s talk about Beks. What sort of obstacles or challenges did you have to overcome to start a culinary academy? Then, if you could, Bekei, was your mother entrepreneurial in any way? Where does this come from? Are your siblings entrepreneurial as well?

Bekei Ijewere: Yes. I did mention my mom was a head teacher. On the side, she was actually a seamstress. She would create these beautiful attires using patterns. She was well sought after. She did it as a hobby, so she would take her time. In that aspect, yes, she was an entrepreneur, although she didn’t grow it into a bigger business. She did spend time doing that.

All of my siblings, actually, are entrepreneurs. My brother is a medical doctor. He chose to build a hospital back home in Nigeria. I think that’s hard. Every human being can be an entrepreneur.

Kirk Bachmann: You said it earlier. Sometimes some of this runs in your veins. It’s in the DNA. It’s fascinating. Were there obstacles from the community or finances or the need for a school that you had to overcome as an entrepreneur?

Bekei Ijewere: Yes. You remember my desire to have a cooking school dates as far back as twenty years ago. When I realized I had that desire, I was excited. The first thing I did was try to put a plan together, like a business plan. I approached a bank. I had a friend who was highly placed in one of the banks. You look towards getting some financial firstly from the bank. We had a conversation.

I explained. You know the excitement of a would-be entrepreneur. I told him all of the facts and all of the gains. He looked at me when I finished. He looked at me and he said, “Bekei, I’m not sure that’s a business that’s going to yield enough profits.”

I was shocked. I said, “Why not?”

He said, “Because in our present environment, we do not have enough – what is it called – policies guiding the food industry.” The food industry was not particularly regulated, so he thought it would be a bit risky to put a lot of money into building a school at that time. My initial challenge was the funding.

Fortunately, moving forward, we’re in such a good place now in the culinary industry in my country. We do have regulations in place especially in terms of food safety and hygiene. The hospitality industry is blooming, and there is a demand for professionals. Now the narrative has changed. You can confidently tell a young man or a young woman to go get a culinary degree because the gains are many. Financial gains are good. You can set up your own business. You can be a chef tutor. You will be so satisfied. You will derive so much pleasure from being a chef.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m fascinated. How would you, Bekei, define or describe the culinary scene in West Africa, for example, today?

Bekei Ijewere: Vibrant. That’s the first word that crosses my mind. Exciting. It’s like it’s blowing up, and people are realizing, “Oh my goodness, we have good food, delicious food. We can do a lot of things with this.” So we’ve had lots of young people get professional degrees and have run away with it. It’s magical, Kirk!

Kirk Bachmann: You should be the spokesperson for the country’s culinary scene. On your home page, it says, “Fostering love and peace through food.” Absolutely love that, by the way. What can your students expect from your school when they attend your school? You said while you’ve been away, you’ve been doing some online cooking for them. In general, what are you trying to accomplish with your school?

Bekei Ijewere: So in my school, we decided to start off small because I believe in adding building blocks after a solid foundation. We actually have three short courses. Any student that comes to my school will expect to get knowledge on culinary foundations. We’ll run through techniques and methods of working with ingredients. We’ll run through health, safety and hygiene. Then, we would also teach them cake baking, pastry making, bread making, walk them through recipes that actually yield good results, and we finish off with Nigerian cuisine. That’s really where we are at this time.

For our students, we want to start from scratch. We want to give them the fundamental knowledge of how to be good chefs. We want them to go away confident that once they see any ingredient they can identify, state its aim. “Is this good? Is this usable? Will it be okay for human consumption?” They’ll be able to tell what to do with that ingredient. We give them that space to become creatives, so they can expose themselves through the act of cooking. That’s what we do with students, with the adults who come to Beks culinary.

We truly believe that when we cook for people, when we bake for people, a little bit of ourselves go into that to show them that we care. Because we believe in that at Beks, we use recipes. We use recipes that we have adjusted to make sure it meets the flavor profiles that our audience is expecting. Then, we tell our students that the recipes [are not the end] and be all of this game. The recipe is just a guideline to help you put through what you need to do. To help you put your ingredients together. To help you make your mise en place. And we teach them the techniques that will guide them towards creating a perfect plate.

That is the word I use at Beks Culinary. Every time you cook, you must produce a perfect plate. What does it take? Yes, you have a recipe. You do your preparation. You use the correct techniques. And with an ample amount of care, you definitely produce an excellent dish.

A Short Course Becomes a Culinary Diploma

Kirk Bachmann: So beautifully said. I don’t know that Auguste Escoffier could have said it any better. It’s the exact philosophy that he spoke to and wrote about so many years ago. You can provide a foundation, you can help people understand the most appropriate techniques to apply to a variety of ingredients, but more than anything, don’t be bound or detained by preconceived expectation. Be creative. Express yourself through your food. I love how you said that every dish that you create should be a part of you that you’re sharing with your guest. I think there’s a book in there somewhere, Bekei, that we need to start thinking about. Writing a book together.

Let’s fast forward to 2022, which was a little bit after you started Beks. I’m just fascinated by this. As if you weren’t busy enough, you decided to make this huge decision and enroll at Escoffier and earn your diploma in culinary arts. You’ve said this to me. You’ve written this. You’ve said that “this immersive experience further solidified your expertise and expanded your culinary knowledge.” So absolutely beautifully said. As a truly genuine question, I’m just so curious why you chose – we talked about it a little bit, informally – why did you choose to go back to culinary school? Because you were longing for more information to better yourself? How did you land upon Escoffier as the place that you wanted to be?

Bekei Ijewere: Very interesting question. This actually takes us back to the end of February 2022. I had to come to the US to be with my kids. My kids actually school in the US. Sometimes I do come in to visit them. I was intent on improving my skills. I actually didn’t have the plan to do a culinary degree. All I wanted to do was a short course, maybe a week, two weeks, on food plating. That was all I wanted because I figured, “My goodness, I can cook. I can bake. I can decorate cakes. Who needs to go to culinary school? So let me just add on a food plating course.” I felt that would be a breeze, and it wouldn’t take any time.

So I began to search for places where I could do that, but somehow most of the things that popped up were restaurants advertising one-day classes, maybe coming in to do some pasta, coming in to do some one-day classes. I saw Escoffier kept popping up any time I searched Google. So I decided to call Escoffier. I actually took time. I went on your website. I looked through. I couldn’t really find any shortened courses. I filled out the form, and I called. I can’t really remember, I think I spoke to someone called Jeremy at that time. “Okay, fine, I know a lot of these things, but I’d like to do menu design. I like to experience all of these other questions of culinary. Fine. I know how to do my accounting. All of that.” But being taught specifically how it’s done in the culinary world. I had not experienced that. I just did it from my general knowledge of accounting.

So I called Escoffier back and I enrolled.

Memories and Lessons from Escoffier

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. Are there any specific – other than, of course, us meeting in Boulder – but are there any other fond memories that you have of your experience over those fifteen months?

Bekei Ijewere: I remember particularly at the beginning we had to do the orientation. We had the spotlight challenges. I wanted to be spotlighted. I got spotlighted.

Kirk Bachmann: You got spotlighted. I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised.

Bekei Ijewere: On the mise en place and I think on the breakfast one as well. I was super, super excited. I beat my chest and I was like, “Oh my goodness. I’ve got it in me.” That really, really spurred me on. It made me want to do more and more. I loved those challenges. Those were some highlights that kept me going.

We had this chef I really liked, Chef Shontia. She would say “as far as it all goes” so many times. Any time I tuned in to class for the first two weeks, I was like, “Oh my goodness. I’m going to grow much. I’m going to say ‘as far as it all goes’ again.” Funny enough, by the fifth week, I found myself saying, “As far as it all goes.” I sound like a cool woman. We’ve kept in touch, Chef Shontia. We’ve kept in touch.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.

Bekei Ijewere: Her class was really exciting. Fun moments.

Kirk Bachmann: Have you seen that you’ve been able to enhance or implement some of what you’ve learned through your program for your current business?

Bekei Ijewere: Yes. What comes to mind is labeling. We did that. When we did culinary foundations, and we did fabrication where we had to fabricate the chicken. The chef puts us through labeling. I found that really useful because we had to label them by parts. Put the legs together, the thighs together. Then we put the dates. We put the dates, and we keep them, and we used them as needed. the As soon as we label back in my business, we go through that process. That is definitely one that I took away.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Very important from a sanitation and inventory control perspective. One hundred percent.

Bekei Ijewere: Something else that comes to mind is the externship program. I think it’s an excellent program because at first I didn’t want to do the externship. I actually spoke to a chef about it. “Okay, I have my own place. Can’t I just do my externship hours there?” But I was told no, that I needed to go somewhere else to fill in those hours. So I had to do it. That was the last semester.

So I reached out to one of the most prestigious hotels in the city I live. They took me on as an extern. It was such an amazing experience. Of course, I’m not as young as some of the people they have in their kitchens. I get in there, and everyone is so polite. “Oh, madame. No, madame, don’t…” I’m like, “I want to do this. I need to do this.”

You know what they did to me? The butcher now comes to show me how to … You know how you want to do the lollipop chicken? You want to cut off the wing and push it down. So he showed me how to do it, and I did a couple of them. And he said, “Here, do that.” He gave me a bag, a full bag of chicken wings.

I’m like, “My word. Okay.” So I start in doing it. He didn’t know the stuff I was made of, that I’m resilient. After I’d done half of the bag, he comes back and said, “No, no, you need to stop.” I said, “No! I’m going to finish it.” And I finished it. With that alone, I made my mark in the kitchen. They started to listen to me. They looked up to me. We worked together very well because they figured, “Oh my goodness! She can do some hard work.”

I was able to build a network of chefs in the industry. Without Escoffier insisting on that externship experience, I would still be a lone ranger, so to speak. But now, I have these array of chefs behind me that I can call upon at any one time, and they’ll come. We can work together. We’ve been exchanging ideas. We’ve kept in touch. We’ve exchanged recipes and know-how. Sometimes I’ll call them. “I want to prepare this Thai dish. What next?” That’s it. The externship experience is an excellent one. It has worked well for me.

And finally, I think there’s one more thing. Oh my goodness! The passion of the Escoffier chefs. I think they infused some of it in me because you guys are so passionate about seeing your students succeed. That’s such a good thing. I’ve adopted the same approach. I want my students to succeed. I go out of my way to help them. I encourage them. I give them the tools they need. I give them the advice they need. I keep in touch with them even after they’ve left. I think that passion I did get from working with your chefs. Yes.

Empowering Women

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. And your enthusiasm is infectious.

Bekei, you mentioned in your bio – or I mentioned it in the beginning of the show – that you’re passionate about empowering women in the culinary industry, which I find incredibly inspiring. Is there mentorship that you’re advocating for personally and through your business as well, for women specifically?

Bekei Ijewere: For women specifically what I do through my business is an apprenticeship program. Women who desire to work in the culinary field, I employ them as apprentices, and I train them. I teach them how to do everything we need to do. I also pay them allowances. That has worked excellently. I see them grow.

When someone comes to you and has no idea what techniques to use to move plain flour and water and sugar, to mix them together and form a cake, something edible and delicious. Absolutely no idea! I watch this person grow to the extent that they begin to create their own stuff. They realize that, “Okay, if I reduce – the math and science involved – is it okay if I reduce the flour a little bit. I could get it to be more fluffy.”

I’ve surrounded myself in my workplace with such women. They are apprentices. Some of them actually stay long term. Some of them stay just two years and they move on. That’s where I have empowered women.

On a personal note, I have had a conversation with the Women Society in my church. I have offered them a seventy-five percent discount on tuition. When they find a woman who desires to become a professional chef, they bring her to me, and then we train. So yes, those are some of the ways I’ve tried to empower women.

Changing the Culinary Landscape

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Bravo. Bravo.

I’m curious. Thank you for indulging me for as long as we’ve been chatting. We’ve gone way over our time, but I’m just fascinated. When I think about or you think about the cultural aspects, the local flavors of your culinary creations and what you produce at the school, how do you believe that your school and your work, Bekei, is contributing to the overall culinary landscape in Nigeria? It’s a big question.

Bekei Ijewere: It is actually. It is. We are very much a work in progress. We are still growing, but we continue to impact in the area of our school lunches because it’s the same process that we impute in our school lunches. We do provide private catering as well. When close friends and family members have occasions, like landmark celebrations – fiftieth birthdays, ninetieth birthday, eightieth birthday. Those come to mind readily. Or like receptions, we are asked to cook.

We try to differentiate ourselves because there is a lot going on in Lagos, so to speak. Our impact is such that people call us back over and over again. “Oh, I had this meal, Bek. Can you do this for me?” “Oh, I had this snack at such-and-such a place. Can you repeat the same for me?” In that light, we are gaining ground. We are gaining ground.

For the school, my word! Since this year opened, we’ve received so many calls because we have a class starting off on the twelfth of February. It’s really encouraging seeing all of these people coming in. Like I said before, it’s been a blow up of the culinary industry in my country. People are eager now to become educated in that field. We ourselves are taking time to convince – where is the word? Convince. No! To put out the information they’re missing. It’s okay to be a culinary professional. You don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer. It’s okay if your desire is to make good food for people, come. We will train you.

I remember at the end of 2022, the Culinary Arts Practitioners Association in Nigeria. We have that association. We partnered with them. We actually sponsored an event where they brought a lot of high school children. It was such an inspiring occasion. After I spoke to them and we shared with them how far we’ve come, two of those kids were so happy. They said they really wanted to become chefs, but they are afraid to broach the topic with their parents. Because in Nigeria, you are expected to do something much more than become a chef. After that experience, they were confident enough. They said, “So, I can let my mom know that this is a recognized profession. This is an area where I can make my mark on the world.”

Bekei Ijewere’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Beautifully said.

Bekei, we’ve come towards the end of our chat. It’s been absolutely lovely. Before I let you go, the name of our podcast is The Ultimate Dish. In your mind…I think I know what your ultimate dish is, but I need you to explain it. Let’s see if I can share screen here. Can you see that?

Bekei Ijewere: Yes, I can see it.

Kirk Bachmann: This is your ultimate dish, and I have to know all of it.

Bekei Ijewere: Okay. If you asked me two months ago what my ultimate dish is, I would tell you right up, “Beans.” Beans. Stewed bean porridge with fried plantain. It’s been my all-time favorite dish.

But now, very recently, my doctor confirmed a diagnosis of pre-diabetes. The past two months, I’ve had to go through a mindset change of how I see food and how I prepare food and what I eat. Because I love beans and plantains so much, for me, this has become my ultimate dish. I’ve prepared it with the same white beans, the same ripe plantain, but what did I do? I decided to grill my ripe plantains instead. I grilled it until it adopted the golden brown delicious color because it reminds me of the fried plantain. And I cooked my beans until they became tender and succulent. I have my beans lying on top of a bed of salsa, which I made with some green peppers, red peppers, and I infused the flavor profile I love so much, which is the Scotch bonnet pepper, some crayfish, and some dried catfish. That is what I have in the base. Yes.

Then I decided to top it with the same salsa and do a trail of pickled onions and some pickled cucumbers. Again with the umami. The umami experience, I must say.

Kirk Bachmann: I just love it. This is a first. We’ve done a hundred episodes on The Ultimate Dish, but I’ve never heard a dish explained quite the way you just explained yours with that much passion. Unbelievable, Bekei. Thank you.

Thank you so much. Please give my best to your husband when you get back. You and I will certainly stay in touch. My best to your daughter and your grandchild. Thank you so much. What a lovely conversation!

Bekei Ijewere: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you. And I do hope you get better very quickly.

Kirk Bachmann: I will. I will. I think I got better in the last hour talking to you. I think I did.

Bekei Ijewere: That’s nice to know. So nice. Thank you so much, Kirk.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you so much. Take care.

Bekei Ijewere: Bye.

Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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