Doing business interviews and promoting entrepreneurship education via inspirational and thought-provoking conversations with business owners and change makers is something that we enjoy and remain passionate about; at the end of 2015, we decided to look into creative ways of telling business stories and we thought what better way than documenting the process and having fun along the way.
We are very big on the use of social media, and we love food. We first discovered Ozoz Sokoh via her beautiful food artistic photos on her twitter feed and then her blog, Kitchen Butterfly. We did ask at some point for our favourite pastry, Apple Pie and Ozoz Sokoh was gracious enough to invite Whoot Africa over to watch her bake.
We were granted access to bake alongside conducting an interview with her; it was a Saturday morning in the heart of Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria. We took a drive down to the convenience store to pick up the ingredients with her and get to know her a little bit more.
In this inspiring conversation with Whoot Africa’s Olushola Pacheco, Ozoz shares a bit about her life, interests and passion for African development through Food, Art and Photography.
Here are excerpts from her chat with Whoot Africa.
- Can you share with Whoot Africa, who Ozoz Sokoh is – the individual, businessperson, Cook and The Kitchen Butterfly as a platform you proudly represent?
I am a geologist by background and I think overall, I am someone who is curious, observant and likes to learn new things. I rarely think of myself as a businessperson because a lot of the things I do started out as hobbies and that’s how I keep the interest and the fun. I don’t like to think about money even though it is very important and I don’t really think of myself consciously as a business person. With regards to Kitchen Butterfly, I have three key interests – food, art and writing and all three of them come together on my blog, Kitchenbutterfly.com. I think those are just different ways of expressing different parts of me at different times.
- What drives you and what inspired the birth of The Kitchen Butterfly concept?
I think what drives me is the desire to live each day to the fullest, to embrace whatever beauty I find, whether it is apples in market stalls or the scene of yellow buses at TBS or just a way of appreciating God’s goodness, people, myself and being alive. It is an appreciation of beauty and that inspires me.
Kitchen Butterfly? – I started Kitchen Butterfly in 2009. I was going through a bad patch while I was away living and working in the Netherlands. It was my first time as a professional working abroad and it was hard; I was in a very diverse organization and I felt out of my depth. The first year at work I was okay; second year, I struggled and it was in that struggle I realized I needed to find something else outside of work that I could invest my time and energy in. I needed a place I could take my mind to, kind of like a safe space and that was how I started Kitchen Butterfly.
It was a Friday evening when the thought came to me that I could actually start a blog; my husband was there with a friend of ours and both of them had blogs. I was cooking Chinese for dinner and standing at my kitchen window when the thought hit me; I was like ‘I can actually write about food’. I love food, I love photography and this was something I could do, but it took me 9 months to start the blog – the same time it takes to birth a baby – to finally put that idea together. I was so hung up on the idea of it being perfect; I wanted perfection with every aspect of it, from the website to beautiful photos, and I also wanted a lot of content before publishing it.
- Looking back at how long it took for Kitchen butterfly to kick off, would you still do that again?
No, a lot of the things I want to do now, I jump in. I take a few minutes to process, to sense what my instincts are saying and if I feel like this is something I want to do, I dive in head first. I realize that you will always be afraid, and that courage is not necessarily the absence of fear, but it is the willingness to go on in spite of the fear. I don’t wait anymore. That’s why we are here having this interview, I told myself I was going to do stuff, and do it as and when I want to. I think that period was very important for me, it was necessary processing and it was also calibration for these times, now that I know I no longer have to wait for so long to birth a new thing
- The drive and passion for cooking and teaching at this point, is not something you pick up randomly, can you share with us how you picked up this interest, specifically the home front and growing up?
It is interesting though, I grew up in Warri, Nigeria in the 80s and both my parents were not particularly wealthy. My father worked for Shell, my mum had her own schools and they were very interested in the arts and science so we did things – we played outside, went camping, had sleepovers and took road trips, in fact we did everything you could do in the 80s without worrying about security. My friends and I dug up clay, we made clay pots, we were always very hands on, we grew up doing, investigating and exploring lots of different things. My father was one person who loved photography and he was also very interested in making everything from scratch; the local Amala delicacy is a good example. We made a plantain flour version. We would peel the plantain, cut it, dry it and then my dad would have it ground and he wasn’t doing it because we couldn’t afford to buy it, he just loved the process of making his own food and creating quality products. We made almost everything from scratch – I knew how to pound yam as young as 12years old. even my brothers learnt to pound yam too. The breadth of things we learnt at home served as a good foundation for everything else I do now.
- Have the associations you belong to helped your businesses over the years? Especially in the cooking world where every chef/cook strives to outshine, how has this network being of use to you?
I think the thing I find most amazing, is just how supportive chefs and cooks are, but I think the most amazing part of it is how different and how very individual we are. I am friends with a number of people who cook and who are chefs, and everyone has their own take and their own style; in fact, there are a number of events I have only done because I have had someone like Tomi (Chef Imoteda of Heels in The Kitchen) say to me, ‘oh you can do this’. I was recently a ‘chef’ at an event called the #big60 and the only reason I even applied to be part of it, was because of the support of Chef Tomi, I didn’t think I had the confidence to pull things off with the #big60, but this is someone who has done numerous events who felt I could do it. I am not always about validation or compliments, but this is a case where it made a huge difference and hearing someone you look up to encouraging you; that was huge.
We all do different things and everyone appreciates what the other person is doing; but also we can learn from it as well, sometimes I am in a bind and I call a friend or chef and go ‘Look, I want to do this and that, what’s the best way of doing it?’ People are more supportive than we give them credit for. People want to default to ‘competition mode’ when they see people in a group doing the same thing, they think that automatically there has to be competition, but it doesn’t have to be because I think it takes a special kind of person to understand and appreciate that we are all unique individuals and it is definitely about learning more than copying the other person; it is about the nurturing, and support systems. For instance, there are some popular bloggers like 9jafoodie, Dooney’s Kitchen et al and other Nigerian food bloggers who are doing amazing things and also quite prolific, they create lot of recipes; and the beautiful thing is, out of one food idea, you see different renditions and variations and then you know that we are gifted and we are learning from each other and there is a wealth of amazing food coming out of Nigeria.
I like to think of it as reimagining Nigerian cuisine, and I call it the New Nigerian kitchen because it is about doing things more efficiently and being creative with our food. The key for me is understanding the fundamentals of an ingredient and knowing you don’t have to stick with the boundaries of what you knew before; you can actually take an ingredient and explore all the different ways to creative and colourful uses.
- What would you say will be the best qualities one should have to become not only a good chef/ cook, but one who will be sought after by people of diverse tastes?
You have to be willing to embrace failure, that is the singular most important thing; also being able to understand why a particular thing failed and I think that’s what I love the most about food; how forgiving it is. I tried making samosas with plantain dough and it completely fell apart, I ended up with plantain mash. Even though it was delicious, it wasn’t what I was going for and I realize that a few things could have gone wrong from the preparation to the ingredients. I could have been depressed, but the beautiful thing about cooking is finding out what you could have done better and then try. That’s what I absolutely love the most about food.
- The restaurant/service industry is said to be one of the riskiest business ventures as consumer tastes continue to change, does this give you concern or worry? Would you be comfortable giving another chef feedback on their food?
Having recently experienced what it felt like to run a restaurant (he #big60 pop up restaurant back in December 2015 in conjunction with A White Space Creative Agency), I know that it is quite intense – both emotionally and financially. You have to have fairly good judgment and predictive skills as to how many people you expect every night; the planning around that, the grocery shopping and the prep is everything. So, you have to be good at planning, organizing and also the creative aspect of the menu as well as knowing how to preserve things in the short term. I think the restaurant business is a challenging one from what I have seen and experienced. I’d be willing to give feedback to a chef, but I am actually quite reluctant with dictating to people what they should or shouldn’t cook – cooking is a deeply personal thing. It is definitely not a business I want to go into though. I would be happy consulting for restaurants and food chains but that’s about it with the restaurant business for me, considering I love to develop recipes and menus, but owning and running a restaurant is not for me. I believe that anything that takes too much time and effort will dull my creativity
- The channel of food distribution, either with price changes or scarcity, in your own opinion, what are some of those things you expect this new government to do in order to stabilize the food chain as well as its smooth functioning?
One of the critical things for me, is tackling post-harvest losses. In agriculture, there is so much waste after harvesting is done and I think we need to be better at preservation. I don’t think of Nigeria as having a preservation culture, we do preserve certain products but not on the level and scale that I would expect. Take tomatoes for instance. Nigeria is one of the top producers of tomatoes, but you would never see sun dried tomatoes in the market, in the mean time we have the sun and in abundance too, which is a relatively inexpensive way of preservation. Cameroon peppers are very popular in Nigeria, these are hot yellow peppers that are dried and sold in Nigeria. Meanwhile, in Nigeria we grow these same peppers in Nsukka, but we don’t dry them and we should. Why should everyone refer to Cameroon peppers when we can create our own to meet the demand for it locally? I constantly think of how much our markets would benefit from solar powered dehydrators; saving a lot and giving these market women alternative sources of income, giving them an option to sell both fresh and dried produce and reducing the wastage levels; this is something the market can come together as a cooperative to do. These are some of the ideas I would love to explore – making people more sufficient even in the ways and the things they already do; they are not learning new things as such, just maximizing and expanding their horizons.
- Would you love to go into the spices business?
Spices are some of the things I would love to do work with in the near future as I have some ideas about spices and spice blends. An interesting thing happened to me a few years ago; I met someone who is called The Spice MasterLior Lev Sercarzan Israeli spice master who lives in New York. I won his book “The Art of Blending” from a food 52 (one of my favourite websites for home cooks) contest. I emailed him about meeting him during my planned holiday to the US and he wrote back almost immediately, which stunned me because of his world famous Chef status. When I got to the US, I went to see him. I took him Nigerian spices and he was so excited and happy because he hadn’t seen most of them. He went on and on about how fresh and beautiful our spices were and commended the quality. That got me thinking about how much we can export, not just the spices but also our cuisine, how much we could educate people and share our produce with the world, there is such diversity and such richness in Nigeria cuisine that we sometimes take for granted.
- What’s the best/ relatable advice for a novice looking to going into this line of business and food photography?
Find what you love about food and explore that. There are some things I don’t enjoy doing in the kitchen so I don’t bother with them but there are other things I enjoy – I enjoy chronicling and understanding when Nigeria foods and vegetables are in season. I enjoy the history and culture behind our recipe, finding similarities between our cuisine and that of other countries. So to anyone I would say, it’s a long process sometimes, but you need to find out what it is that interests you about food. For some people it might be colours, others textures, flavours or recreating things. Find out that bit and that’s half the journey, that’s the hard work. The greatest power comes from being able to share, because that’s where you learn and hear people say ‘oh, this is how my mother used to do it’, ‘this is how my grandmother ate it’ – that’s how you can fully explore the boundaries of what you know and what’s possible with one thing or the other.
Learn to appreciate your own perspective, or else you will be discouraged seeing this through others. Find your eye, find your own perspective, find your own interests, find what makes your heart beat faster about a particular thing and explore it. Don’t be concerned with what people think, find your perspective and you’ll see how it relates to that of others, eventually.
- Where do you see the Kitchen butterfly in the next ten years? Would you ever consider having a food channel or at least a cooking show?
Kitchen Butterfly in the next 10 years would see me having written and published my memoiresque cookbook, thanks to Farafina. I would love to have a cooking show, as well as find ways to enriching our cuisine. I would love Nigerian cuisine to move from sustenance to a place where we can export our food, where it is at a stage where it is celebrated because I think Nigerian food is worth celebrating.