Chuku's Chats with The Observer Food Rising Star Chef Lopè Ariyo

Last year 23-year old Lopè Ariyo's take on Nigerian-inspired recipes saw her become Red and HarperCollins' African Food competition winner, securing a publishing deal for her very own cookbook. The cookbook, Hibiscus, was released last week so we had a chat to the upcoming chef about her love for Nigerian food, her inspiration and how it felt to win the competition.

For us our love for Nigerian food is closely related to our personal ties to the country. Could you tell us what is your own relationship to Nigeria and the cuisine?

I grew up in London and I come from a Nigerian background. But it’s when I went to boarding school in Nigeria for two years that I really began to appreciate Nigerian food, especially since I wasn’t really eating any other cuisines while I was there. There I learnt what the key ingredients and cooking methods were for make Nigerian dishes.

What’s your favourite traditional Nigerian dish?

Most probably pounded yam with egusi (melon seed) stew, efo riro (stewed spinach) and smoked fish. Mainly because it’s the first Nigerian dish I really fell in love with.

The Observer Rising Star - Chef Lopè Ariyo

The Observer Rising Star - Chef Lopè Ariyo

How would you describe Nigeria to someone who’s never been to the country before?

I haven’t been to Nigeria in over 10 years so I couldn’t describe exactly what it looks like. However, if I were to describe the atmosphere and general vibe I’d say chaotic but warm and joyful.

Tell us more about winning the competition – how did it feel to be crowned the winner and now to have your book coming out?

It was great! I really did put my all into so it was great to see that rewarded. It’s been really lovely too see everyone’s reaction and it just shows that a cookbook on Nigerian food has long been in demand.

Lopè Ariyo's Hibiscus & Coconut Cake

Lopè Ariyo's Hibiscus & Coconut Cake

What’s the significance of the book’s title, Hibiscus?

As I was writing the book and creating new recipes, hibiscus was the one ingredient I played with the most and I really began to admire its complexity and I was surprised it wasn’t used more in Nigerian cooking. And in this sense, it mirrors Nigerian cuisine. Nigerian food hosts so many different flavours and it’s also a cuisine that should be known more and made in homes around the world. 

When you’re not cooking, what do you do to take time out?

Honestly, resting. Cooking takes a lot of energy, so once I’m done with that I like to recuperate. If I do find myself with enough energy I’m probably still doing something related to food whether that be eating out with friends or writing about food.

If you could cook for anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

It might be a bit of a boring answer but I’m genuinely happy cooking for anyone who truly appreciates and cherishes my food. I could easily say I wanted to cook for a certain famous person, I could and then they might turn around and say they don’t like it. That would be heart-breaking. So for me I’m happy to cook for anyone who is intrigued by my food and would appreciate the beauty of its flavours.

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Your cookbook is full of great-tasting recipes but we know the creative process involves a lot of trial and error – can you tell us about a recipe you tried that just didn’t work?

I was lucky enough that there wasn’t a recipe that just didn’t work. But I did have one where I had to rethink the cooking method. I wanted to make a cheesecake using mozzarella, hoping to imitate Nigerian’s equivalent, wara. Initially I just blitzed it up but you can’t do that. It ends up gritty! I had to rethink and think of instances where I’ve had mozzarella in a different form and it’s been smooth. So, then I thought to try making the mozzarella into a sauce first and then combining it with the other ingredients to make the cheesecake and that worked!

Growing up, what chefs did you look up to and why?

I didn’t have any chefs I looked up to and that’s the honest truth. Of course, there are the celebrity chefs and cooks that I would always see on TV but they didn’t really inspire me. I’ve only really been inspired by chefs in the last 7 or 8 years where I’ve actually gone out of my way to find out about specific cuisines and people who interest me. Currently, Massimo Bottura is one of my biggest inspirations because he not afraid to go against tradition when it comes to cooking. 

Lopè Ariyo's inspiration - Massimo Bottura

Lopè Ariyo's inspiration - Massimo Bottura

Now, there must be those looking up to you. What advice would you give to someone pursue a career in food?

I think a career in food is relatively easy to get into. It just depends on what path they want to follow. So, first things first is to figure out exactly what it is you want to do. Say for example you want to be a food writer, make sure you have some where people can see you content. Go to events where you can meet commissioning editors and network with them. Most importantly put yourself out there.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?

I don’t really know to be honest. I did a maths degree and the usual path is to go into banking or accountancy but I knew before I finished my degree I didn’t want to do any of those.

Hibiscus is published by HarperCollins and you can get your own copy here