Barrier Breaker of the Month of April 2021
The Barrier Breaker of the month of April 2021 Is…
Akudo Agokei, a Chef and Creative Director for NTX Media. He is known for his combination of different cultural foods, spices and different techniques. He likes trying out new things and getting people from different cultures to experience things they are familiar with but in a new way.
Did you ever desire to be a Chef?
No, it came out of the blue. My entire life was planned out with my dad. The end goal was to have a job at the World bank. I had my degree in Financial Economics, interned in various prestigious places, government and house of parliament in Canada.
I started to cook in 2007 and that was so that I wouldn’t die. I was alone in Canada, no family in the country, I had just gotten into university and I survived on McDonalds for a while. It came to a point where I realized I couldn’t do this, I was getting tired of this and running out of money. I needed to learn to make something. So I called my mum and the only reason why I did was because she was the first person I blamed for not knowing how to cook because I was the only boy in my family. My mum always told me growing up that a kitchen is no place for a man. So I told her “Listen, I’m alone in this place, I have no idea what to cook or what to do, you gotta help me out”. So she taught me over the phone. One of the first things I learnt to cook was chicken. There was no recipe, just cook the chicken and from there she said we’ll make stew or we’ll use the stock to make something. First couple of tries went disastrous. (lol).
The spark lit when I finally made one recipe right which was stew. One day I took it to Uni and a couple of my friends tried it and liked it and I felt very happy. Someone is actually complimenting my cooking. I was just expecting the usual male banter. From there I really got excited about it but I did not think about becoming a chef. I think if they had not liked it, it would have been the end for me. So what that did was make me comfortable with cooking, if I failed, I’ll try again. It stayed like that for four years. I was just comfortable with cooking and learning new recipes. I got so good at cooking that when I got back to the United Kingdom, I used to cook for my sisters. My mum will make stuff and my sisters will say “let Kudo make it next time” because they preferred my version. I also got so good at boiling rice that my dad preferred my boiled rice to anyone’s. I have now become his designated rice boiler because everyone’s rice was too soft, mushy or hard. So those compliments kept giving me that passion until I got to a point where I wanted to learn more recipes.
Sometimes in life, all you need is one person to support you and that’s it. That one person acknowledging what you did, or encouragement will help you move on. You may not get it right the first time but the little steps you take in learning, reading, studying, whatever it is, will make you get better.
Jumping Ship and Telling the Parents
I came to a point where I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life and took eight to nine months thinking about it. I eventually started hating work. I did not want to do the Economics or The World Bank thing. One day my wife told me if I wanted to jump ship, I should. There is no point having this massive regret after 10 years. She said “we will be fine, we’ll make it through”. So imagine having to tell Nigerian parents that you’re leaving this senior role and well paid job to start afresh and start as a Chef but my dad took it much better than my mum. My mum was all about you’ve got a kid, a house, a family, you’ve got goals etc.
Jois: Thank God for supportive partners. A very supportive partner in any kind of relationship makes so much difference. It makes the journey easier, it takes some weight off of you because you know that no matter what they’ve got your back.
I also think before you make any major decision in life, you need to really think about it. What are the pros and cons, are you willing to go against the odds, what if you fail? Ask yourself some hard questions. Pray about it too. Sometimes you might take a step that is right and still fail or be faced with tough times. Note that you were meant to learn something from there to grow you. Sometimes even after thinking about it, you still make the wrong decision. Just learn, grow and do better.
When I started cooking, I just made basic dishes. So the more books I read, the more videos and documentaries on food that I watched I found my way into Fine Dining. I was completely blown away, watching what these Chefs were doing with food, identifying aspects of cooking or characteristics of ingredients. This was a completely different way to see food. I will watch these Chefs from different backgrounds non stop and as Netflix grew, they brought in more documentaries on food and gave them a platform to showcase what they were doing. For me that just exploded the thought in my head that I want to cook with and or learn from these types of Chefs. At that point I had not quit my job. Even when I left my job, I had not fully grasped what it was to understand food on that level. I used to watch these guys and imitate them and that’s how I started developing the skills of creating my own recipes. So I’ll pick an ingredient, study it, do a few tests and give it to my wife to try and she gave me constructive feedback and if it was trash I never took it to heart. Then I started crafting my own thing. Different people, especially expert chefs, started following me on Social Media because I was sharing what I was making and they were interested in me, a random person who was just watching documentaries and doing my best.
One of the chefs who had gone to Culinary School came to my Instagram ‘dm’ to let me know that I was doing an amazing job and that gave me confidence. At that point in time, I had not gone to culinary school, no formal training, just me watching, learning, reading and practicing everything myself. I later had the opportunity to work with a Fine Dining Restaurant – ‘Akoko Restaurant’ and I asked if they could sponsor me to culinary school and take that out of my paycheck. I worked for free for a while. The industry is grueling. You’re expected to kill yourself to get the most experience. We were going through our savings really fast because I was driving to and from London, paying congestion charges etc and my wife was the only one working at that time. Other older chefs had told me that this was hard but I remember speaking with one of them, letting them know how times have changed. It is more difficult now and for me I think it’s slavery, it should not be allowed, it’s wrong. I think there should be some sort of union or a set up for this so that whoever is doing this will at least get something out of it.
Jois: If you really want something, you’ll go all out for it. It might be stressful, you might have to wake up early and go to bed late but you’ve got to put in the work. It comes with discipline, commitment and consistency. It’s not an easy journey but if you stay on track and hone your craft and focus on your vision, you will make it.
I had a heart condition which affected the way I worked, I was becoming sloppy, and dropping stuff around, I wasn’t talking either. My Head Chef was complaining about me, I was coming to work late. He reported me to my boss, the Head of the restaurant who later called me and had a conversation with me. I eventually told him the truth “I am sick but didn’t know how to tell anybody because I was afraid if I take a break, you guys will drop me off this project” and then He said “sometimes it’s not about staying on the project, sometimes it’s just about leaving with what you were supposed to get from it”. This I took as great advice. For me it meant, “You are miles from where you were when I first met you, you’re not where we need you to be to continue with you on this project but you’re where you need to be to make something out of the experience you’ve got”.
Lessons & Advice
If you’re ever going into the culinary industry, you need to understand what the industry requires of you and ask yourself, I’m I going to be this ‘Keep your mouth shut, take the insult, and just get the experience you came to get type of person’, then yes go for it because it has enough experience and it has a lot that it can teach you. If your answer is NO, you can’t take it, then my advice is still go into the industry, then gather as much as you can as quickly as possible and leave and start your own stuff. If you feel you can be independent from the get go then don’t waste your time going into the industry.
Always work hard and always learn. There are two types of Chefs, one that has gone into the industry and gave their entire all to the industry and 10 years down the line, they have nothing but wealth of knowledge to show for it and are still where they are. The second are those with determination and luck. You need to try your best at all times and one day you will be at the right place at the right time. Try to do everything so that one day when someone comes to ask you to do anything for them, you are not limited to one kind of food. Being at the right place at the right time can get you your big break.
To start from zero and not expect to see zero again is really stupid. Always expect failure and plan ahead. Even if you do not plan ahead and you fail, just take the next step.
What Conversation did you wish you had when you were younger
I wish I’d had a conversation with my dad about my career path. I should have sat down with him and let him know that this was his dream and not mine and “if you make me do this, for the rest of my life I won’t be happy” but I didn’t have that conversation earlier enough. When we finally did, he was shocked but he said the only reason why he did not push me towards what I wanted was because I was always doing different things, it was either fashion which I did get scholarship for and he’d said No, or Music and Arts. He felt that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I wish I’d had that conversation sooner because I feel that I would have had more opportunities. Whether they failed or succeeded I would have just experienced life more.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that “The aim is not to die successful, the aim is to die happy”. If you had all the money in the world what would you say? Are you successful and happy or successful and stressed? My wife and I have quit a couple of jobs just because we didm’t want to come home stressed. We’ve said this to each other, “I’d rather you be happy. I’ll work three McDonalds jobs to provide for this family than to see you come to this house crying and stressed”. Anything that is hindering your being happy, address that. If you choose a path and you place your happiness first and decide to go for it, the universe will open a way for you to get to it.
Jois: When a man stands up for his wife and family, it makes the woman feel more secure, not that the woman is not strong enough to stand for herself or do anything but the fact that her spouse or partner is able to be there and be supportive is awesome. I mean that’s how it’s supposed to be, the man covering his family. Once again shout out to supportive partners.
Thank you for doing this with me Mr. Agokei, I really appreciate you taking time out to do this.
You can follow Akudo Agokei on Instagram here – https://instagram.com/akudoagokei?igshid=n7ici6v9p6jl
To listen to our conversation on The Barrier Breakers Corner Podcast, Click any of the links below