Updated Monday, February 2: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Lagos pop-up dinner at POT on February 5 is being postponed.
In the last eight months, Nigerian national Tunde Wey left his position as co-owner of an experimental permanent pop-up space in Detroit, learned to professionally cook all of his family's traditional Yoruba dishes, traveled to Chicago, Philly, Washington DC and Brooklyn (among other places) hosting informal Nigerian meals (billed as “dinners of spicy food and raunchy music”), and signed a lease on a market stall in New Orleans where he will open the first-ever brick-and-mortar Lagos, his “straight-up Nigerian food” concept that he says only a few cities in the country can even handle.
Not bad for the unintended chef who moved to the States at age 16 and has spent the last decade and a half doing everything from teaching West African dance to cleaning toilets to speaking publicly about the essence of failure.
Also impressive for a cheeky Nigerian whose business plan includes sending more than 30 sarcasm-laden emails a week to potential future collaborators around the country, ending each with a plea to “help a Nigerian today because one Nigerian helped is one less Nigerian sending you fraudulent emails.”
Recently, one of these hilarious and hopeful emails ended up in the inbox at Roy Choi's POT, where Wey will be hosting a pop-up next week, Lagos' first introduction to the West Coast. Wey will arrive by Greyhound (his “über-glamourous tour bus”) this weekend, scout for African markets in L.A. then begin plotting his menu.
“I want to present the food in a specific way that isn’t pandering or apologetic – it’s just like, 'Yo, this is Nigerian food and it’s eaten by people who wear skinny jeans and big glasses,” the skinny-jeans-and-glasses donning chef says by phone from New Orleans where he's been escaping Detroit winter since late December. “Nigerian food is not obscure. It's food from a country of 150 million people. It’s not disposable and it doesn't need accessorizing.”
Wey emailed POT not because of a kinship in bold, intense flavors between Nigerian and Korean cuisine or because of Choi's celebrity-chef prominence, but because, he says, he “just liked the vibe of the website.” Similarities between Lagos and POT's online presences include: bold statements; large, humorous black and white photos from their respective motherlands; irreverent descriptions of each one's offerings and a personality that emanates from the screen. “I had no idea it was Roy Choi's restaurant and I didn't know he was such a big deal,” Wey says. “It just felt right.”
So what is Nigerian food anyway?
Well, Wey says the term is a bit of a misnomer, a catch-all invented to make sense of the multitude of tribes and regions that make up what colonially drawn borders have decided is modern-day “Nigeria.” Specific recipes vary across provincial interpretations, but most include rice, beans, some African meat and are defined by the use of palm oil, herbs and spices to create deeply flavored sauces that are as aromatic as they are colorful. His arsenal comes from asking his mom, his brother, his aunt and his cousins how to make the things he ate growing up.
The resulting dishes – including stewed cowfeet, peppered goat head, smoked crayfish, jollof rice (similar to jambalaya), fijohn (black beans and coconut pudding) and egusi (a thick stew of melon seeds and spinach) – are served family-style in two courses and come witha brash assault of flavors your mouth has probably never experienced.
Wey hopes those who come to POT next Thursday and order form his menu (the restaurant will be running two menus all night with no reservations allowed) enjoy the food as part of a holistic dining experience – not lingering on a particular dish or flavor, but walking away unable to unstitch the conversation from the meal and the good time shared while eating it.
The day after his inaugural West Coast pop-up, Wey gets back on his tour bus bound for Detroit. There, eight months after the first time he ever cooked for 50-plus people, he will be meeting with developers in the hopes of opening a restaurant on the city's riverfront. It will be a new concept that hopes to re-imagine American comfort food with Nigerian flavors.
“I think people know good food, especially Nigerian food,” Wey says. “It’s unpretentious, so when people taste it, they know — unless they’re dicks. They'll say, 'I don’t know what it is but it’s good.'”