I found out about African Kitchen in 2015. It was October first, Nigeria’s independence day, and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than having dinner at a Nigerian restaurant with my two best friends – a Venezuelan and a Swede. Since then, I have become a regular customer, bringing people from different parts of the world and introducing them to my native food. I would always laugh with and engage the employees in conversations, getting to know them. This wasn’t in vain. When I went to the restaurant to ask if I could interview the chef, I was told that the Chef was busy and she couldn’t speak to me even if she wanted to without the owner of the restaurant present. But I kept insisting and eventually, a familiar woman came up the stairs.
“I heard your voice and came to check whether it was you!” she explained, adding that she never agreed to interviews but for me, she would. Tessa Ajulo was born in the Southwest region of Nigeria, in Edo State, the slogan of which is “The Heartbeat of the nation”. By the age of 10, she was already learning how to cook, helping out in her mother’s restaurant. Despite having no immediate family members in Paris, the 33-year-old moved to the city in 2010. She started working for the restaurant in 2015, when her cousin told her about a Nigerian restaurant in Paris and advised her to apply for work there. There, she could introduce her culture to foreigners through its delicacies – traditional Egusi, Ogbono and Banga soups. The drawy Ogbono soup serves as a link between cultures, as her foreign customers always ask for the archetypal Nigerian dishes: “I want it normal”; “I want to eat like an African”; “I want to eat with my hands.”
At this point, we reminisced about a shared memory. The last time I visited, I’d brought two friends, a Jamaican and a Moroccan. Apart from the two West African tables next to us, the only other customer was a French man who ordered Eba and Egusi. Spontaneously, the whole restaurant – the seven customers and Tessa – joined in on a communal discussion. He had just come back from a trip from Nigeria and admitted to missing the local cuisine, as he carried a mouthful of Eba with his hand and dipping it into the sauce. Tessa and I laughed at the memory – a proud, patriotic laughter. She then told me about the numerous people who come with similar stories – people who have visited or lived in Nigeria and come to the restaurant when they miss the food. There are also people who come to try new food and to whom, “we tell [them] Amala is black o!” On average, Tessa cooks for 20 people a day and occasionally more. She says the foreigners are particularly excited because, “they want to try our food, listen to our music and watch out football matches on the TV.” They usually order Eba (grinded dried cassava (manioc) flour or Pounded Yam and the restaurant sometimes gives them half a plate of rice in case their curiosity got better of them and their tongues don’t actually like the foreign taste. When I asked her how she caters for vegetarians, since they don’t exist in Nigeria,), she gave me the specific menu: white rice, plantain and spinach.
Through her food, Tessa is primarily a cultural gatekeeper who not only connects Nigerian expats to their motherland, but also introduces Parisians to the African country. For Parisians who visit ‘African Kitchen’ without prior awareness of what Nigerian food tastes like – those whose image of the country is shaped by the food they order and the music they listen to at the restaurant – the kitchen shapes their thinking and ideas of the country. While they might have possibly heard about the viral ‘Bring Back Our girls’ campaign or watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous ‘Danger of a Single Story’ speech, Nigeria is re-introduced to them through its cuisines. There is a saying that goes by, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Extending this reasoning (and eliminating the recognizable patriarchy that underlines it), African Kitchen has found its way to the hearts of non-nationals through their stomachs. It bridges approximately 2,000 kilometres into a mealtime, connecting nations, peoples and hearts.