Ozoz Sokoh is a geologist, culinary expert, photographer and blogger. As the founder of Kitchen Butterfly and the inventor of The New Nigeria Kitchen, her work has been featured in CNN African Voice and Food 52. In this interview by KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks about local and foreign cuisines, culinary business and her passion to expand the frontier of Nigerian culinary heritage.
You are an exploration geologist. Why and where did you study geology? And these days, between rocks and food, which one do you explore more?
I studied Geology because it was one of the ‘choices’ my dad accepted when I asked if he was willing to send me abroad when I decided to quit Obafemi Awolowo University, three years into a degree in Urban and Regional Planning. I chose it because I knew Nigeria was rich in oil and gas resources, and I would get a good job after graduation. I laugh now because that was really simple thinking for a teenager. In the end, all worked out well. I spend my days now exploring food and its many dimensions, using the tools and skills I built as a geologist— enquiry, scenario building, testing and documenting.
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As a child, what was your perception of food? Which of your parents influenced your love for food and cooking?
It is hard to believe that I hated food till I was nine! Before that? I was a sugar lover. You’d find me with a ‘blue packet’, sitting behind curtains eating and licking cube after cube. Things changed when my dad took my older sister and I on holiday to Edinburgh and I ate—out of hunger—for the first time. Both my parents have been huge inspirations. From my mother, I learnt the basics, classics and the details—why bitter works in most African soups, to how to use fresh prawn heads to lend the most awesome seafood flavour to a broth and to thicken it. From my dad I learnt the experimental and love for learning and making everything from scratch be it elubo (yam flour) from the raw yams and plantain, to exploring flavours. My dad would buy several flavours of ice cream and encourage us to mix and match.
When did you discover you are going to make a career and life out of culinary business? How long have you been a professional chef?
My dream has always been to write a cookbook, because I loved the beauty of food. Then in 2009, I discovered food writing and started my blog, Kitchen Butterfly. I began to document ingredients and quantities. Then came the discovery of ‘food as more than eating’ when I realised there were culinary connections between Nigeria and Brazil through the slave trade. That was a defining moment for me in understanding the power of food.
You once said you are a ‘Traveller by plate’ through food and that ‘Food is more than eating.’ Could you briefly explain these things?
Food is one way I discover the world and all the ways we’re similar in spite of our differences. It is how I draw links, establish connections and navigate the complexity, sometimes of life and living. There is no country I’ve been to that I haven’t found some similarity with Nigerian cuisine. That has helped me understand how there are ‘human’ tastes and flavours, things that appeal to all palates and are present in all cultures (like smoked foods, fried dough and breads). The great thing is you can armchair travel by plate too. How? Get a map or randomly choose a country. Read about its cuisine. Choose one recipe and go deeper—find out more about it. Guess what? You just travelled, without the hassles of getting a visa. I say that food is more than eating because every time you have a plate set before you, you can map different journeys that speak of economy, politics, agriculture, history, transport, sociology and more.
Briefly tell us about Kitchen Butterfly—many people are confused whether it is your pen name or your business name.
Does it matter if it is pen or business? It began as a pen name for my Nigerian food culture blog and has now transitioned to a business name. It is the visual expression of my metamorphosis and growth—like a butterfly—from having a simple interest in food which has deepened with time.
You invented ‘The New Nigeria Kitchen.’ What is it about? As a photographer, how have you explored photography in telling culinary stories?
The New Nigerian Kitchen is my philosophy and practice to celebrate Nigerian cuisine in its entirety, through documentation across different media. It holds a renewed sense of identity and pride in Nigeria and its culinary heritage. My photography takes a documentary approach—showcasing our produce, techniques, food supplemented with good writing which puts Nigerian cuisine in global context. It allows Nigerians to see our food in all its glory and situate it on global tables. Non-Nigerians also get to experience this too and find touch-points with their own cultures.
How many countries has your culinary expertise taken you to? Which of these countries did you enjoy their cuisines most and why?
I am an equal opportunity food lover—Pilau in Nairobi, churros and chocolate for breakfast; dinner in Barcelona;super flaky croissants in Paris; amazing seafood in Rome; dumplings in Prague which reminded me of Nigerian eba; salt fish in Barbados; the most delicious passion fruit drinks in Zanzibar; and great Amala in Lagos. I can’t choose.
You were among the chefs in the 2016 edition of the GTBank Food and Drink Fair. What was the experience like for you?
It was interesting to share my perspective with a mixed crowd. I also like to teach so it was right up my street.
Do your children have the same passion you have for food and cooking?
My children love food and are confident cooks and eaters. That makes me so happy—it’s the legacy I want to leave them with—that they can create, research and execute, even on their plates. I hope it’ll inspire and motivate them in other aspects of their lives too!
What advice do you have for young people, who are aspiring to be like you?
You can connect your varied interests into one. Remember that a jack of all trades is a master of none,but oftentimes better than a master of one. Read the commencement speech Steve Jobs gave in 2005 to Harvard students. Read widely about people who are doing the things that inspire you—at home and abroad. Also, keep a master list of your goals, no matter how ‘random’ and impossible they seem. Keep updating it. Refer to it when you feel lost and confused. Let it be your map, compass and guide. Write to people who inspire you. Furthermore, put yourself at the centre of your hopes and dreams. Understand who you are and what you’re called for. Actively study your failures and learn from them. Finally, ask for what you want, even if you are afraid. Before you ask, you have a 100 per cent No. Asking changes the odds in your favour—50 per cent Yes, 50 per cent No. Also be prepared for that Yes!