Opening Chuku's, the world's first Nigerian tapas restaurant, was just for starters for siblings Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick. In lockdown they have expanded their brand to include meal kits, an interview series and online supper clubs. Katherine Price meets them as they prepare to reopen.
The past few years have been a tale of two halves for Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick, the siblings behind Chuku's restaurant in London's Tottenham. They and their Nigerian tapas concept have received a slew of awards and critical acclaim, while a successful crowdfund saw them open their first bricks and mortar site last year.
After the pandemic forced them to close the site just a few weeks after opening, they took their time to perfect the Chop, Chat, Chill meal kit delivery service before launching it nationwide in February. The kit sold out in its first week in less than 48 hours and caused the site to crash on launch day.
The siblings are originally from Essex and, despite barely edging 30 (Emeka is 31 and Ifeyinwa is 29), they had already established high-flying careers before launching Chuku's. Emeka left his job as a strategy consultant at Accenture, gaining hospitality experience at brands including Honest Burgers, while Ifeyinwa's CV includes starting her own performing arts school at the age of 16, a degree in classics from the University of Cambridge, and work in PR and marketing, as well as time spent as an English language teacher in Martinique and France.
The siblings started running pop-ups and supper clubs in 2016, with the aim of bringing the Nigerian food they cooked at home to a wider audience. The name of the brand is derived from Chukwuemeka, Emeka's full name. They serve their dishes tapas style, inspired by time spent in Barcelona, which include an egusi bowl, a tricolore of spinach, tomato and egusi (melon seed) stew with yam dumplings, that Evening Standard critic Jimi Famurewa said he was "in complete awe of"; while The Guardian's Grace Dent described the chicken ata din din as "far too delicious to stop picking at". They even won praise from former Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who called it "the best Nigerian food [to be] had in any restaurant".
As is often the case with Nigerian cuisine, many dishes are plant-based and gluten-free, focusing on rice, yam and cassava instead of wheat flour, making it accessible to a broad range of diners. The siblings take inspiration from across the country and its different ethnic groups, and although much of lockdown has been spent on dish development, they say they still have so much to explore.
"One thing I'm looking forward to, having done all these tweaks to our dishes, is seeing how people respond to these improvements," says Emeka, who leads back of house. "Once that has settled, we want to dip into the archives and the library of ideas we've had for new dishes."
Ifeyinwa, who oversees the operational side of the business, adds: "We're not even at a point where we've tried or have even exhausted all the ideas we came up with prior to opening."
A crowdfund in 2019 raised £36,000 of a target of £30,000, and in the same year they won the Young British Foodies' Food Sharing Award. An arduous three-year property search saw a site in Dalston fall through at the last minute before they were able to open their first 35-cover bricks and mortar restaurant in Tottenham in February 2020, celebrating Nigerian culture through the food, the art on the walls and the music.
"We didn't get many opportunities to meet landlords," says Emeka, "so it was a really exciting time and culminated with us being able to have our opening and our weeks of trading quickly followed by the closure."
Ifeyinwa adds: "It was a really great response [from diners] and it did feel like that reward for years of hard work; something really tangible. When we were a pop-up we knew what we were trying to do, but we didn't have anything physical to show for it.
"[During the first lockdown] we made the decision that pivoting to hot food takeaway wasn't the right thing for us, and we were quite clear that anything we did during this time had to have an element of sustainability and be in keeping with who we are."
Instead, they turned their attention to virtual events, continuing to bring their community together through ‘Nollywood Netflix parties'; virtual supper clubs with attendees from Los Angeles, Marrakech, Lagos and Paris; and their Chuku's Chats interview series.
Ifeyinwa explains: "We'd always been clear Chuku's was about more than just food – it was about the culture as well. It felt good to find a way to continue to promote the culture and deliver something of value to our community, even while we weren't physically open to deliver food.
We'd always been clear Chuku's was about more than just food – it was about the culture as well
"I remember one woman said it was the most conversation she'd seen or witnessed or been a part of in eight weeks."
The pop-ups and crowdfunding thankfully meant they already had a brand following, with 600 crowdfund ‘backers' (the names of which are still on their website) and a mailing list of around 2,000 subscribers, which set them in good stead to eventually launch their Chop, Chat, Chill meal kits.
"While the restaurant in its physical entity has only been around for a year now, Chuku's as a brand existed for four years before the lockdown, and we really did benefit from that," explains Ifeyinwa. Although Emeka emphasises "it's still quite difficult" and orders are not quite "flying out the door" just yet.
The buildable wrap meal kits come with jollof quinoa, fillings such as beef, chicken or tofu, house salad and sauces. The siblings eschewed the bigger delivery platforms and built their own to enable them to graduate to nationwide delivery, which they did in February. But of course, it is not just about the food for Chuku's, so the meal kits come with a QR code for accessing a selection of Nigerian film, art and music.
But as important as communicating the message behind Chuku's has been, the pair have taken the pastoral care of their team during lockdown very seriously. For them it has been a continuous process of checking in with individuals, and not just now that the hospitality sector is starting to reopen.
"We already have an understanding generally of who is feeling a certain way, so it's not a case of just flipping a switch – we know where people are, physically or mentally, and whether they're prepared to return to work," says Emeka.
Being siblings as well as business partners has also been a blessing for them both, ensuring they are constantly checking in with each other, but it has been important to keep business and personal matters separate, which they do through two WhatsApp groups.
"Having those boundaries and establishing them at the outset sounds so weird, but they make all the difference," stresses Emeka.
Even with restrictions, when they do reopen (although they had not yet settled on a date at the time of writing), they say it is possible to create a relaxed dining experience. Communicating the process guests will go through on entering the restaurant will actually help to relax them, as they will know they are in the hands of an operator that is taking their safety seriously.
Even so, Emeka says the last year has been "incredibly tough" as new operators and, when it does reopen, the restaurant will be down to 20-odd covers under social distancing.
"There's been quite a lot of responsibility put onto hospitality operators to ensure that the public are compliant, but that's not why people come to a restaurant," Ifeyinwa adds.
As for government support financially: "There has been some support, but we still have financial obligations and the funding doesn't necessarily meet those obligations," she says.
The siblings are in no rush to reopen, however, although things were looking positive for a 17 May indoor dining reopening date. They may be ambitious, but their focus is on hitting a full year of trading without disruption and cultivating a seamless operation, with the intention of continuing the meal kits if possible.
"Everybody wants to reopen – we can't wait – but we also need to respect what has happened in this past year," says Emeka.
"We are still going to be reopening in a pandemic environment. When you've got team members who have been affected or you yourself have been affected, just pay it a bit of respect and make sure that you've got everything in order, make sure everyone's kept safe. We need to see how this situation will pan out week to week, because things are still changing. It can't just be business as usual because it's not business as usual."
It can't just be business as usual because it's not business as usual
Ifeyinwa adds: "We do think it's important that operators feel they can move at the right pace for them, their teams and their customers. To prepare for a date which might ultimately not happen is a big risk.
"Given the year we've had, right now we only have one plan and one goal: just to reopen and get the first restaurant working. We're very much still a new restaurant, even though it feels like we've been around for longer."
Avoiding burnout as a business owner
Ifeyinwa "I've drawn a lot of energy from our community; I find that [positive messages on our social media] really re-energise me. I laughed when it first got suggested that we could take a daily walk – as if that was going to mean anything – but actually I do take my daily walk and often I really need it.
"I studied classics at university and as part of my degree I studied ancient philosophy. I'm a big fan of stoic philosophy, which talks about circumstances around events and how you feel about them can change further down the line. It's more about how you respond to circumstances that can cause you pain or suffering."
Emeka "We found it to our detriment in the early stages of being business owners that if you consistently push faster than you and your team are able to go, you won't go anywhere. That is something that we as business owners try to bake into our lives. I have my meditation and gratitude practice, and I do callisthenics or running or swimming when I can.
"Having Ifey as a business partner makes things easier. We also have a wonderful family as well. [The pandemic has] given me a better opportunity to spend time with my mum and my girlfriend. Those assets, those jewels in our lives, it's been a blessing to be able to spend time with them even more."
From the menu
Plant-based sharing plates
- Jollof quinoa (quinoa steamed in a red pepper, tomato and ginger stew) £4.75
- Moi moi (a savoury steamed tart made from puréed beans, red peppers and onion) £5.50
- Egusi bowl (yam dumplings with egusi [melon seed] and spinach stew) £7.50
- Caramel kuli kuli chicken (chicken wings coated in a caramel sauce, infused with kuli kuli, a north Nigerian spice mix) £7.25
- Chicken ata din din (pulled chicken in a Scotch Bonnet and red pepper sauce) £7.25
- Honey suya prawns (king prawns glazed in a honey suya sauce) £8
- Yam brownie (gluten-free brownie with a hint of ginger) £7
- Chin chin cheesecake (orange and stem ginger cheesecake on a cardamom and chin chin base) £7
- Plantain waffle (gluten-free and vegan waffle topped with blueberries, maple syrup and dairy-free ice-cream) £7
Chop, Chat, Chill
Designed for two people, the Chuku's Chop, Chat, Chill meal kits make four wraps for customers to build at home. At a cost of £25 plus delivery, each kit comes with jollof quinoa, a filling (beef, chicken or tofu), house salad and sauces. Customers can also add sides such as suya meatballs, desserts such as chin chin cheesecake or yam brownie, and a cocktail.
The name comes from the restaurant's mantra – chop is Nigerian pidgin for eat, while the chat and chill aspects are all about encouraging a sociable and relaxed atmosphere.
Portraits by Andrew Crowley. Food photography by Brian Dandridge. Interiors by Adam Scott
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In