The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
This week’s subject is Tobi. He has spent the last six years in Texas, living the American dream while making (and eating!) the best food, courtesy his own hands.
Completely jealous, we caught up with him to share how he made the move to America from Lagos Nigeria, how hard work and committed partners helped him set up two catering companies – TwoThirtyFour Kitchen and AllIDoIsCook. The best things about living in Houston and of course, food!
I know I said this was an Abroad Life article, but really I just finessed you to get free cooking tips. What’s the best way to get really tender beef?
Oh easy! You can get really tender meat in two ways: one, cooking in a pressure cooker, an electric one – for about 15 minutes and any meat would slide off the bone like you spread engine oil on it.
Second, you can slow-boil the meat and leave it in its broth for a period of time. But I’ll recommend this only when a pressure cooker isn’t available.
People at the back (and hopefully in jail) using Panadol to boil meat, hope you’ve heard? Now I know you’ve been cooking for a while. Actually — how long have you been cooking?
Well, I started cooking when I was maybe six. It was just me and my brother at home. My parents travelled a lot, so it was more of a survival thing at that point. But professionally (even though I never went to culinary school), I’ve been cooking for about six years.
Good. You’ve been cooking for a long time. So who’s winning, jollof rice made in Nigeria with the wisdom of 10 grandmas and firewood smoke. Or, the jollof rice y’all have in the over seas? I’m trying to see something.
Nigeria jollof rice with the big pot and firewood any day!
I mean, there are ways to get that same smoky taste here, like covering the pot with foil, baking the rice, I never would though. But it’s always like an 80% grade. Authentic firewood jollof gets an A++.
Now, knowing this is the grade of jollof rice you’d be working with, why did you move to America? Let’s just pretend this is a rational question.
Haha. Well, I lived in Nigeria up until I moved about six years ago. But even when I lived there, a lot of the time when I was on holiday in Babcock University, I’d come to America to work for a couple of months. From there I —
Hold up! You used to work in America during breaks from Babcock University? Is that … cudibee a whiff of blue passport I’m catching in the air?
No oh, the passport is currently very green. But when I was in Babcock, I was interested in the hospitality industry. So I got the J-1 Visa which is a non-immigrant visa that allows foreigners work in the US for a number of months. Only, I had to prove I was in university and of course return at the expiration of the visa. I made these work trips for about 3-4 summers and realised hospitality was a sector I really wanted to get into, so I decided to get a Masters in Hospitality and Tourism Management from the University of North Texas. That was around 6-7 years ago when I officially moved from Nigeria.
(FYI, the J-1 visa program is still open to research scholars, professors and exchange students engaged in cultural-exchange programs to obtain business or medical training in the US. Don’t say we never did anything for you.)
So after completing your masters, how were you able to stretch your student visa into six years of living in the US? Hold on, let me get my pen, jotter and anointing oil before you answer.
Hahaa. So at the time, not sure if this still operates with Trump’s ban in place, but there were many ways to obtain a Permanent Residency. While I was pursuing my Masters, I wrote a lot of academic papers in my field. This was one means, filing for a permanent residency based on academic contributions.
But for me, I was fortunate to have a school that saw my potential and decided to retain my services with them lecturing students in marketing.
Letmewritethatdownrealquick. Okay, got it! Meanwhile, talk about so good, they can’t ignore you!
So in between masters and writing research papers and lecturing on marketing, when did you decide cooking was what you really wanted to focus on?
Well, I was never not cooking during this process. I cooked for myself, my friends, my roommates. It was also a means to an end. Even when I was doing my PHD I —
Hold it right there. You did a PhD too? My guy, just how many heads am I talking to right now?
Haha, just the one. I was looking to bag a PhD in data and information science. Even then, I was hosting private dinners. I always had my sights set on food. I just struggled with the format I would adopt. Would it be a restaurant, private dining experiences? I just couldn’t decide.
But, during that period, I was working 20-hour days with cooking and PhD research, so I had to drop it after a semester to focus on cooking full time. I could always go back though.
So what you’re telling me is, you’ve known for a long time, what it is you wanted to focus on with your life?
Well, to an extent, yes.
Hm. *Remembers how a certain law degree was abandoned for writing, only for writing to gradually lean into communications. Closes brain tab*
So before I get into life in Houston, I have to ask a question.
I know you have AllIDoIsCook and 234 Kitchen. Being an entrepreneur anywhere isn’t easy. But being an entrepreneur in the US when your family is majorly in Nigeria and aware of the FX rate hits different. How were you able to start your businesses?
Well, first of all, you need people that really, really support you.
You need a partner that is truly a partner. Lucky for me I have a partner who is in every sense of the word, a partner to me.
I also had friends who just wanted to see me win and were just full of incredible support when I was starting out.
So even though my parents are in Nigeria and my brother is abroad, I mostly started business by taking little loans from my friends.
$50 here to buy the ingredients and sort out any logistics for the job I was contracted to do. I’d return the loan from the money I was paid and re-invest the profit into the business. That was a cycle I adopted that really worked for me and I am constantly re-investing into the business to make it grow.
Oh wow, that’s amazing. My friends don’t even text me back when we’re in the same room.
Now, to Beyonce’s backyard. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate Houston as a place to live?
Houston is a great place to live actually. I moved here from Dallas 8-9 months ago and I really like it here.
There’s something you should know though.
Houston is pretty much the American Lagos. You actually can’t walk on the road without seeing like 3 – 4 Nigerians every five minutes. I don’t have the hard facts, but I don’t think any other state in the US has more Nigerians than Houston.
But to living here, it’s a great place and it’s pretty big. Just like how Lagos has Ikorodu, Mowe, etc, it also has its own pockets of towns. So there are bustling areas, but there are also quiet places, like the suburbs, which are great for raising children and retiring.
Got it. And night life, transport? How does it rank?
Let me talk about transport first. It is horrible!
Oh wow. True, true. This is the American Lagos.
Look, if you’re in Houston and you have plans to leave your house at 4 PM, just wait, there’s no point. You won’t get there till like past 7 anyway. So might as well.
Another thing is, Houston doesn’t have a train system. Or wait, they have a train system, but it only goes downtown I think.
There’s a public transport system, but it’s not as efficient. So really, it gets a pass mark.
Houston rise, don’t waste Beyonce’s rep!
How does the night life rank though?
Oh this is where Houston shines. There’s a lot to do. But my favourite things, not exactly nightlife, are Houston’s malls, especially the outlet malls. The skylines, the galleria. And my home. I love staying at home.
Home lovers. We outchea!
But for proper nightlife, there’s a ton to do. For anyone that says Houston is boring, it might just be your pocket talking.
Oh funny enough, I was just saying last week how boring Lagos is and … oh wait. This explains things.
Now I know AllIDoIsCook has the bombest Fenty meat pies and Jollof rice, but who else is kicking butt with Nigerian food over in Houston?
Let me make this clean and simple:
For shawarma, there’s only one place – 3Tees Shawarma
For amala – Amala Zone
Honeykaz makes great small chops, suya, spring rolls.
These are my favourite Nigerian food places in Houston. But, if you want really great Asian food, check out the Chinatown in Bellaire. They have great options.
Got it! Now back to your cooking. What was the very first gig you got?
Oh man. I was studying for ICAN, and one of my friend’s mom asked if I could make small chops for 100 guests in Mende. I said I could, even though I actually had never done it before, let alone for a hundred guests. But I asked my mom to send a recipe, went to the mall to get ingredients and got to experimenting and cooking.
Please tell me this story has a happy ending!
Oh it does, thankfully. The small chops ended up being really good, even caterers that were guests had to ask when I started doing the business because I looked so young. They couldn’t believe it was my first time. So that was great.
Now before I ask the next question, I don’t mean to start any beef, but — you mentioned your mom. You and she decides to have a cooking throw down. Who’s winning?
That would have to be me!
[Bethany, Tobi’s partner jumps on the call at this point and let’s all the haters (Tobi) know that she cooks better than him. Please sign my petition at the end of this article, for them to have a pop-up shop in Nigeria for the nation to collectively decide.]
Now, let’s fast forward a little bit. When did you realise, it’s like I’ve blown with this cooking thing?
Well, I don’t know about blowing. But, Yvonne Orji from Insecure reached out to have an event catered, then Jidenna as well, Wale also reached out, so that was great.
We just had another amazing experience catering for Tamar Braxton’s son’s birthday, so that was really fantastic.
There are some others I can’t speak on because I signed an NDA, but those have been really, really great experiences so far.
So those are obviously some great moments. Has there ever been a time where you’re like, that’s it, I quit?
Well, not quit. But there are days where I’m like, I don’t want to see another meat pie for the next couple of days or just the sight of a grain of rice will just the worst thing I can imagine. In those periods, I just take a step back.
I’ve taken like 7 days off where I just don’t cook. I use that period to think. Most of the time those breaks are for thinking up new recipes, so at the end of the day, quitting just never rears its head.
Got it. Now back to living in Houston, Do you think living there has given you an edge over say, setting up shop in Lagos?
First of all, having AllIDoIsCook and 234 Kitchen in Houston is great because there is a never-ending supply of customers. They love to eat and eat out. But even better, there are just policies that work here.
The government isn’t going to blindside you and wake up one day, deciding to ban chicken,
Wow, imagine if that happened somewhere.
*Stares directly at camera*
It’s things like that that make the thought of setting up shop in Lagos scary. But if it was based off of food alone, minus the logistics of things, I’m sure I could just as easily set up shop. Word for good food always spreads.
Word to that. Now, what has been the most difficult part about being an entrepreneur? And what’s something you’ve found easy to deal with, that other people complain about?
I have to say the things that are outside your control are the hardest things about being an entrepreneur. Like deliveries or supplies coming in late or in a worse state than you imagined. You have no control over that, so it’s hard to plan around it. That can be hard.
I can’t even imagine how hard.
And on something that’s been easy to deal with, I’ll say dealing with customers. This isn’t to say we haven’t had our share of angry customers, but we’re constantly pre-mediating anything that can make customers go ballistic, that we now leave very little room for them to be so upset. So managing customers and customer expectations is definitely easier now, than I could have imagined.
Now, one question before I ask the final thing. Who hurt you when you wrote this article?
Haha, where did you get this?!
(In case you didn’t know, Tobi is Zikoko alum)
Now last question, what are the 2020 plans for AllIDoIsCook and 234 Kitchen?
Well, 234 Kitchen is a lot more upscale and fine dining, while AllIDoIsCook is meat pies, and jollof rice and Nigerian food you grew up eating. Last year, we catered to a 500-person dinner, weddings, so more of that this year. We’re looking to ship AllIDoIsCook meals across the US, and hopefully into a larger market. I’m gunning for hopefully 10 weddings this year for 234 Kitchen, so let’s see.
All the best with that, we’re all rooting for you!