Emblazoned in large gold lettering above the door of Chuku’s first permanent London restaurant is a sign that reads ‘Welcome to Lagos’. For sibling founders Ifeyinwa and Emeka Frederick, the invitation very much reflects their statement of intent.
“When we first discussed the idea, it wasn’t about trying to open a restaurant,” says Emeka. “London is a vibrant and exciting city, but it can sometimes feel impersonal. We wanted to find a space that was warm and welcoming to everyone, and which would allow us to bring our culture and heritage to a wider audience.”
The pair originally talked about creating a Nigerian-focused food concept back in 2011, while they were both still at university, but it wasn’t until 2015 that they settled on the idea for Chuku’s.
“There were plenty of places in London to go where you could experience Nigerian food, but they often weren’t accessible to a broader market, and so for many people in London it was a cuisine they were less familiar with,” says Ifeyinwa, or Ifey for short. “That was something we wanted to change.”
Deciding that small, tapas-style plates would offer diners greater variety of dishes, the pair built a dining concept where the emphasis was on creating a relaxed and communal atmosphere. Tables would be pushed together to allow different groups to mingle with each other, and in the background a rhythmic selection of Nigerian afrobeats would be played to help set the mood. They labelled the experience ‘chop (Nigerian pidgin for eat), chat, chill’.
“The idea came together really easily,” says Emeka. “Our focus was on having a cool, hospitable environment that was defined not just by the food, but also the experience.”
Learning the industry
Five years later and having hosted several successful pop-up events across the capital – including at Spitalfields’ Canvas café and Nest in Hackney – Emeka and Ifey are sat in Chuku’s first bricks and mortar restaurant on Tottenham High Road. When asked how long it took to find a permanent spot, the pair both let out audible sighs; creating the concept may have been fairly straightforward, but getting to this moment clearly presented more of a challenge.
“The ultimate dream was to open our own site, but for a long time that felt more like a fanciful idea than a realistic reality,” says Ifey. “The first couple of pop ups proved that there was a demand for the concept, but at the time neither of us had any real experience within the hospitality sector, and we needed to change that before we could comfortably move forward.”
In 2015 both Emeka and Ifey left their respective jobs – he was working in the City, and she had been teaching in France – in order to take on entry level front of house roles and learn the basics. Following a brief stint at a bowling alley (“there I was shown how not to manage a team”), Ifey got a job at Yard Sale Pizza; while Emeka went to work for Honest Burgers.
Both were open with their employers that they wanted to know the ropes in order to eventually open their own place, and made extensive notes about the systems and operational procedures that needed to be followed to run a successful business.
“Those years were important as they allowed us to understand and appreciate all the smaller issues that you don’t really experience when running a pop up in someone else’s restaurant space,” says Emeka, who also got the opportunity to shadow chefs in the kitchens of Ceviche after reaching out to the group’s founder Martin Morales. “It probably didn’t teach us everything we needed to know, but it did give us a strong, solid grounding from which to build upon.”
While money saved from work and pop ups helped secure the Tottenham site, it was thanks to a crowdfund that the pair were able to bring it to fruition. “We’d gone back and forth about doing an equity crowdfund,” says Ifey. “But a community crowdfund was right for the brand.” Aiming to raise £30k in 30 days, they eventually secured £36,150 in funding through online platform Crowdfunder, pledging to reward supporters with gifts ranging from an invitation to attend the restaurant’s launch, to having a Nigerian-inspired cocktail named after them.
The restaurant’s interiors, designed by XAMI, are inspired in part by the geometrical patterns and adobe clay colour of traditional Nigerian architecture, as well as the bold colour palette championed by many modern West African designers including British-Nigerian Yinka Ilori.
Meanwhile the food, which features a range of meat and plant-based sharing dishes alongside a handful of sides or ‘small chops’, takes inspiration from sources including the siblings’ childhood memories and recent visits to Nigeria.
“We started with what we knew, and developed the ideas from there,” says Emeka of the menu development. “Nigerian cuisine has a huge breadth, and we wanted to make sure we had a variety of dishes from different cultures and tribes, so we reached out to different people and communities. The test for each dish has been to make sure we think it works as a sharing plate.”
Several signature dishes from previous Chuku’s pop-ups have made it onto the menu, including quinoa steamed in a jollof stew with red peppers, plum tomatoes and ginger; fried plantain tossed with cinnamon sugar and coconut; beef meatballs peppered with suya spice; and plantain waffles topped with blueberries, maple syrup, and dairy-free ice cream. New additions, meanwhile, include a rice pancake dish served with a pumpkin and peanut sauce, inspired by Emeka's recent travels to Kano in Northern Nigeria.
Across the board prices are affordable, and takeaway is not an option. “This is a place where people can come to sample our cuisine and culture,” says Emeka. “It’s important for us to keep the prices down, and it’s why were not interested in delivery. Chuku’s is designed to be an extension of our home, and the only way to experience that is to visit.”
Given that they’ve only been open a couple of weeks, and already suffered a few inevitable hiccups, asking the siblings if they plan to open more Chuku’s may be a bit futile. And indeed, the pair share a bemused laugh when it is put to them.
“We don’t just want Chuku’s to be a restaurant,” says Emeka. “We want it to be something that helps contribute to the regeneration and generation of the local area, and help transform the perception of Nigerian African culture. And to think so far ahead would lose sight of that.”
“If we’ve learnt one thing along this journey so far, it’s that you can’t think about moving forward until your first site is running perfectly smoothly,” adds Ifey. “Emeka and I have always dreamed big, though. And there are certainly ways we want to expand the brand. But those ideas aren’t necessarily going to be traditional or conventional.”
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