Nkem Odewunmi runs a very successful gourmet food business in Lagos, Nigeria. She’s a self-starter with a passion for delicious food. She is disrupting the food service industry in Lagos with her business, Food Fashion Fusion. She’s walked into this lifestyle from a previous career in legal practice. She has been inspired by many women in her life and continues to serve as an example to many women in her community. You get to learn why I chose Nkem to participate in Our Friend’s Woman at Work series.
You worked in legal practice before you started a gourmet food service called Food & Fashion Fusion. What prompted your career change and what advice would you give to someone considering a similarly drastic change?
For me, being a lawyer was just an aspect of who I was and my abilities. I have always believed that I had a lot to offer humanity and hated to be defined by what my profession was or where I worked. I worked as a lawyer and moved into the corporate world, holding various positions. I then moved into the charity/development space where I thoroughly enjoyed contributing towards developing and running projects geared towards knowledge transfer and skills development (mostly in small companies and young people).
Transiting to running Food Fashion Fusion, was just another step in my evolution. My love for food is hard-wired in my DNA and I have been cooking for three decades. When it was clear that I had to re-prioritize my life after I had children, I switched things up to accommodate this new phase of my life. Essentially two things happened: I reached a point where I felt ready to share my passion for food with the world and I needed better control of my time (i.e. my life).
Food Fashion Fusion definitely has an international appeal. Tell us more about the business itself. What inspired its creation?
As I said earlier, I felt ready to share my food passion with the world. Food for me is more than just a meal on a plate. There is a whole journey that precedes a plated meal. The journey starts where the food is grown, and continues through harvesting, storing, preparation and plating; all these tell of history, culture and skill.
Food Fashion Fusion is about extraordinary everyday food and was inspired by the need to revolutionise how people interact with food. I wanted to ignite all the senses. I also wanted to use local ingredients (where possible) in modern unexpected ways. With support from my husband, Femi, family and encouragement from friends, I took the scary, bold step to establishing as a proper business taking it beyond a hobby.
How have Nigerians responded to your offering, gourmet food, when there is a focus on traditional dishes? Do you have to focus on changing perceptions or has it been easy to draw in customers?
The reception has been very positive. People welcome good changes and Food Fashion Fusion represents that. Since we are uncompromising on the quality of what we deliver, our clients have embraced our products readily. Also, we do not offer products that are far removed from what people know so they are curious enough to try it and then they become ardent fans.
You mentioned that you have learnt things on your own and continue to learn. How have you managed to deal with the issues around being a self-taught chef? Does it affect customer relationships or even how you rank yourself?
I believe that the measure of a good cook or chef is not necessarily by the qualifications he or she may possess but by the quality of food that they put out. I would not be so arrogant as to “rank” myself. I hold myself to very high standards when it comes to service and product delivery but I prefer my clients to assess our output; that for me is the true measure of one’s work.
To address the matter of being self-taught; it has been liberating for me because every step is new and wonderful. I am not necessarily bound my rules and I dare to try things and make new discoveries as I go along. It helps to keep what I do authentic and unique.
What have been some of the challenges that you’ve had to deal with when you started Food & Fashion Fusion?
One of the major trials has been finding the right staff that share the passion and ethos of the company. In order to work with us, you will need to be diligent, committed and willing to learn. It would appear that those qualities are in short supply in the current employment market. But I am happy to say, that with perseverance we now have a growing team.
There is also the challenge of interfacing with third-party service providers, like delivery services. Again, lack of diligence and integrity come to the fore and you find deliveries arriving late, damaged or both. There will be a post on our blog soon about a recent incidence on this matter.
Another issue, has been the general economic climate. Our operational costs are higher than we would like but we hope that if we weather this phase in Nigeria’s “development” then we will benefit in the long term.
How do you manage with some of the environmental challenges that a gourmet food business is faced with in Lagos? For instance, do power cuts, the insane Lagos traffic and shortage of certain food products affect you?
Is there enough space in cyber space for me to answer this?
With respect to power cuts, the Food Fashion Fusion studio is located in an area where premium charges are paid to ensure constant power supply (you can see where operating costs begin to rise). We opted for this because we were not willing to compromise on how our food supplies and products are preserved.
The Lagos traffic is an animal that has not been tamed. So we just cope by making fall back plans, and contingencies to the fall back plans.
The short supply of certain food items we may require, again, forces us to get really creative. For instance, there are fiscal policies in Nigeria now, that make quite a few items prohibitively expensive and this makes me develop new recipes that exclude the use of such items but deliver something equally as delicious and novel.
What does an average day look like for you?
A typical day starts at about 5 am. After I have prepared the children for school and they have been dropped off. I head to the studio to sort out any deliveries that need to be dispatched (ensuring that all bags are correctly tagged etc). Then I proceed to work on any outstanding orders we may have.
By the time the team resumes at 9 am, we have a meeting to discuss deliverables and plans, the everyone sets about their designated tasks.
Just before I head out by 2 pm to pick up the children, I will sort out paper work and emails etc.
When I get back, I would usually spend a couple of hours at the office planning for the evening shift. The office closes at 5 pm but after family time and our children go to bed, I would usually come back to work until 1 am, on most days. I find the calm of late nights and the early morning great for creating recipes and decorating cakes.
Then by 5 am the cycle commences again.
You live in the heart of Lagos. In your vision, what does your ideal city look like?
My ideal Lagos is traffic free, with excellent road networks, reliable public transport services and properly maintained roads.
Of course my ideal city will also have great amenities like power and water supply, good schools and health facilities. It will essentially be a well-planned city that can accommodate the basic social needs of its residents.
Following on that question, what small steps could you do right now, or are doing, to make that future happen?
Apart from being law abiding and paying my taxes, I am involved in various initiatives that seek to empower young people and women with skills and knowledge that they need to make the right choices for their lives. I believe that if people act or operate from a place of knowledge, not ignorance, there will be a knock-on effect in the kind of governance we have and ultimately in the kind of society we live in.Which women have inspired you to be greater than you are?
Without any question my mum, Nkiru Osai, my best friend, Moe (who is a sister more than anything else), Amina Garba, Darbuni Maikori, Pastor Lola Oyebade, Ngozi Ngolou, Carol Leach and Aisha Mumuni. My mum has always believed in me; she taught me and continues to teach me so much about life. My bestie, is an incredible woman of strength and vision; she is wise beyond her years and is a great mirror for me. Amina has been like a guardian angel, she looks out for me constantly and is always ready to encourage me. Darbuni is an amazing soul, she is always positive and has the ability to see things in a different dimension. Pastor Lola is a bold woman who is never afraid to speak the truth; she is firm and gives good advice. I have known Carol Leach for the better part of 18 years and although we have never met, this woman constantly encourages me and prays for me. She has given me very good counsel at various stages of my life. She was the first person to ever to ever tell me, that the world was my oyster, Ngozi is beautiful spirit with a a deep understanding about life, she holds values that are identical to mine and she motivates me to be a better person and finally Aisha; let’s just say that she is a force with a burning purpose. In the time that I have known her she has shared her life selflessly.
I want you to complete this sentence, “I have one wish and I wish…”
I want my life and all that I achieve to have a positive trans-generational impact (It’s really more of a prayer than a wish).
Photos by Yetunde Dada