In 2017, I was invited to participate in a festival at the Culinary Institute of America — the Hogwarts of chef schools is how I have since came to understand it — called "Worlds of Flavor." This was the first time I had the opportunity to cook alongside other chefs of color — specifically, Black chefs with African roots, cooking African food at a level that would inspire and command me to step out of my comfort zone.
It was there that I met Shola Olunloyo, the 45-year-old Nigerian wizard of gastronomy who secured the first-ever residency at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center, home of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the world-renowned restaurant with two Michelin stars in Westchester, New York, helmed by chef Dan Barber. There, Shola took the reins from Barber with a West African-inspired menu from Jan. 13 to Feb. 6.
But how many people have heard of Shola? By his own admission, he is underexposed.
“I've never had a publicist, I've never written a book, my website looks like s--t, you know,” he laughed. Shola doesn’t get invited to food symposiums; he doesn't have a public-facing profile that rewards his knowledge through high-profile brand partnerships or a portfolio of global cooking demonstrations. And yet, without a PR machine behind him, he has quietly built the trust and respect of his peers around the world.
So, who is he? Why do so many of the world’s finest chefs respect his work? How did he get on Barber’s radar and earn a residency of such stature without most people knowing who he is?
Who is Shola Olunloyo?
Shola arrived to our Zoom interview with a smile, in the middle of testing a recipe. Mondays and Tuesdays are his own personal recipe development days where he makes wild and rare koji, miso, garum and long-term pickles and ferments. He likes to highlight lesser-known West African ingredients using Italian, French and Japanese methods. He has a hard boundary around these days of creative introspection.
When asked to describe what he does, since he is a chef without a restaurant, he said, “I build a relationship with food and flavor and find the right forum for it."
This is what occupies Shola through his private dining clients, restaurant pop-ups and collaborations and in his rigorous research-and-development work for manufacturers and brands.
Shola has a placid, measured energy. He is a man in control. Unflappable, even when speaking of his only restaurant venture going wrong, which lost him his life savings, he said, pragmatically, “I ended up with $1,000 left in my bank account and had to start again. So, you know, I felt anger, rage, but I just went back to the things that inspired me five years ago to push the envelope and find a new studio and start doing my pop-up dinners. And that's what I did. Backwards and forwards."
I had been following Shola’s Instagram @studiokitchen for some years before I met him. I regard him as something of a Black Heston Blumenthal, a pioneer of multi-sensory cooking — but cooler. His account is akin to a modern science of cooking for Africans. He is an open book, sharing his recipe ideas, concoctions and techniques for the world to glean inspiration and instruction, free of charge and without comparison or competition.
A fiery passion for cooking, ignited
It doesn't surprise me that Shola’s passion for food was sparked by his simple love of fried plantains as a young boy. But his interest in watching plantains lined up, ripening and decomposing in the sun, was only the seedling of a future fascination with the biology of ingredients and cooking. Shola's self-professed combination of "curious intellectual curiosity and the pure pleasure of deliciousness" was further developed in his love for suya, the roadside charcoal-grilled meat skewers covered in yaji seasoning.
Sneaking palm wine with street suya at boarding school in Nigeria when he was 14 years old sparked his obsession with cooking with fire. And the dish is still a hallmark of his style today.
“Suya became the simple vehicle for investigating the transformation of ingredients into a meal," he said. "Though I was not intent on being a chef, that curiosity led to technical interests like the chemistry and physics of cooking and the transmission of ingredients in order to extract flavor."
Shola cites his mathematician father as his mentor and inspiration, a Nigerian man who, in the '60s, graduated from Cambridge and went on to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics and civil engineering.
More powerful, however, was his father's instruction to be curious: "He told me to look at other cultures … my journey was outward," said Shola. "I wanted to see what and how people think and how they cling to the earth, and especially how they know themselves.”
Passing on his learnings to the next generation
Arriving in the United States in 1990, Shola settled in Philadelphia and, in 1992, found his first kitchen job under the stewardship of Pennsylvania Dutch-German chef, Fritz Blank, at the French restaurant Deux Cheminées, until 1994.
“It was maybe the best job I ever had," he said. "He had staff from so many different parts of the world. I had a great education in the food of the world."
Blank gave Shola an expansive knowledge of many cuisines and "a level of dedication to building flavor in so many ways, how to cook precisely and work in flow like a Swiss time piece," his voice trails a little here, reminiscing, perhaps.
Shola speaks fondly and proudly of Blank's library of cookbooks — the largest private rare collection in the world and now in situ at the University of Pennsylvania, where he sends any chefs coming to visit him.
"You can't take anything out of it," he said. "But this is information that you will never see anywhere else in books."
As a Black man, Shola has been keenly aware of his role as a person of color in the industry and makes a pointed distinction between what it means to be Black in America versus African American.
"There's always some implicit bias in America in dealing with people of color, until they find that you're from another country," he explained. "And that's the advantage in how I was able to gain access to where I am now, besides having the specific competence and skill and knowing what needed to be done and do it better than anyone else."
In the extremely competitive world of cooking, Shola devotes half of his time working on "how to cook better" and the other half he spends collaborating with other cooks and sharing his learnings.
"So, if I'm a teacher and people are able to learn, if people are able to be inspired … that's good, and if they can do it for others and share what they're doing, I think that's great.”
"Cook — don't complain,” is Shola's advice to young BIPOC chefs. "Make yourself indispensable and know more than anyone else."
“You have to be a good cook to make good food," he added. "You also have to be smartly educated person to have a conversation about cultural appropriation — they can be mutually exclusive."
Still (somewhat) in the shadows
Some 20 years after starting out, his seminal residency at Stone Barns is quite the career break, though he remains somewhat in the culinary shadows. He quietly acknowledges that he has the respect of a whole industry with none of the riches afforded his peers.
"I would just be working like everybody else and I wouldn't ever reach where I ought to be," he said. "And I'd have restaurants that can’t serve people during the pandemic. So, you have to look at the bright side, you know, I don't mean from a financial perspective, I'm not wealthy, but from a mental perspective I feel completely at rest … the only thing I would do as a younger version of myself would be to have traveled more and spent more time on the food of Africa."
Without knowing it, Shola has become the godfather of New African Cuisine — a phrase first coined by Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika to describe the movement of chefs forging a new gastronomy around the world from African ingredients. So, what does New African Cuisine mean to Shola?
"Taking the spirit and soul of African flavors and distilling them onto the plate even with the risky foreign influences, the soul of the dish representative of its Indigenous ingredients — not better or anything — an interpretation," he said.
New Nigerian cuisine
It is dishes like egusi stew and suya pheasant that have captured the imaginations of his diners.
"So many people say this focus on this modern approach to Africa is something no one else in the food world is really doing," said Shola.
My ego takes a humbling dent here, but it's true — Jeremy Chan of Ikoyi in London is still the only chef celebrated in the mainstream restaurant world for modern African gastronomy, and he is many wonderful things, but not an African.
Shola compares the impact of his New Nigerian cuisine on diners to that of jazz lovers graduating from listening to Kenny G to Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, summing it up simply:
"(It's) the best thing I've ever done," he said. "The new exposure (from my residency) is precisely what I calibrated it to be. Everybody came and said, 'I've never had these flavors, this is amazing."
Shola has opened a door for a generation of African chefs with this residency — if only they knew who he was, the kind of food he was cooking and where he was doing it.