Ifeyinwa and Emeka Frederick. Remember their names, because we’ll probably all be buying their recipe book, someday. At just 25 and 27 years old respectively, they are the sibling duo behind London’s - and perhaps, the world’s - first Nigerian tapas pop-up restaurant, Chuku’s. Foodies across the capital are raving both about their fresh approach to traditional Nigerian food and the relaxed atmosphere that comes with it: guests are invited to chop (which means ‘eat’ in pidgin English) and chat with friends and strangers alike. Featured in Time Out, on London Live, and winners of a Virgin Media Pioneer’s Global Entrepreneurship Award after just a year’s business, the Fredericks are making serious waves. They also just happen to be Rare alumni. We caught up with Ifeyinwa and Emeka as they continue the search for Chuku’s first permanent site.
RARE: Let’s talk briefly about how Chuku’s came to be. You knew there wasn’t anywhere with the atmosphere you wanted, where you could take your friends to eat Nigerian food, other than your house. You felt that Nigerian food served in a Spanish tapas style and context was a fantastic idea in theory. But what made you decide to take the plunge and try it yourselves?
Emeka: It wasn’t a quick process. We first talked about it just before Ifey even started uni back in 2010 - then study and travel got in the way. Four years later, I was on holiday in Nigeria and started chatting with a friend about the ideas Ifey and I had. I came away inspired to do something with it. So in 2015 we got started with dinner parties at home - initially the focus was just about small, beautiful sharing plates. But Ifey was talking to me about the slower pace she’d experienced while living in Martinique, and how it would be good to recreate that. We started talking about how to incorporate sociability into the culture, and I realised we were talking about tapas culture. I had experienced it first-hand whilst living in Spain, and we agreed it was just a brilliant way to frame an introduction to Nigerian food.
Ifeyinwa: You know, there just wasn’t a strong reason not to do it. Perhaps we were naive about it starting out, but the idea was so good, any obstacles there were seemed like relatively easy ones to overcome. There’s no question about whether Nigerian food tastes good, so we started with foods we knew and developed the menu as we went.
Emeka: Right, and being in London, people were already trying African food from places they might not even have heard much about, let alone visited. Mauritius and Ethiopia are much better represented in London restaurant terms than Nigeria, despite it being the most populous African country. Londoners definitely have the inquisitiveness of mind about different cultures to jump in.
RARE: Your pop-ups are the stuff of legend and your one-off supperclubs sell out in days. In your opinion, what is it about Nigerian food and culture - and the way you present it - that has struck a chord with people being exposed to it for the first time?
Ifeyinwa: What people hear is “Nigerian tapas” - they’ve never heard of that before. It’s new, it’s interesting. Then when you come to one of our events - once you’ve gone past the food, you’re into the ambience - you can just strike up a conversation with strangers. It’s genuinely a dining experience - and it makes it stand out as unique in London.
Emeka: It’s not a coincidence that we’ve built a loyal following – we always wanted a community feel. We’ve been very open with people, and it’s meant that others have felt they can be open too - there’s a lot of heart and soul. People feel like they come into an extension of our home, because that’s what we’ve been trying to deliver. That’s the game changer, creating a space that is an extension of both our home and other people’s homes. This goes beyond food - it’s true Naija hospitality.
RARE: Emeka, you were on Rare’s books back in 2010, and you joined Accenture after university. You’d graduated with a first-class economics degree and your background is in strategy consultancy. How was the transition from that to developing menus and getting creative in the kitchen for Chuku’s?
Emeka: I did an internship with WPP in the summer of 2010. To get in, I had to do a piece of creative writing. I was studying economics, and it wasn’t until I wrote that piece that I realised I was actually creative. At school, you’re often told that creativity was only about art and music, but really, it’s so much broader than that. Rare really helped me to understand that about myself - creativity manifests itself in different ways. I’ve always been problem-solving and dreaming. You could be a very creative person if you often find yourself thinking laterally about solutions. It’s only when you’re in the right place, doing the right thing that your creative vibes will start vibrating. You have to find that place where you can go and show it off.
Ifeyinwa: We come from a very playful and creative family - innovation is a very organic process for us. Our most recent dessert, yam brownies, came about because we just asked “what if…?” Dreaming is in our nature. I call our parents “sensible jokers” and we’re the same - we know our numbers and our margins, but we’re catching jokes and having fun at the same time. We don’t think business and fun need to be mutually exclusive.
RARE: Ifeyinwa, your flair for entrepreneurship seems to have started pretty early - you set up a dance school at the tender age of 16. How did you juggle that responsibility around your studies? How did you maintain the academic/extra-curricular balance as a Cambridge student?
Ifeyinwa: I only went to uni because I really liked the course, but I was a reluctant entrant. So it was hard work, but because I loved the academic side, it didn’t feel like that much work. I did the things I love - when I love something, I make space for it. I wasn’t out as much as other people, and perhaps I was in a more mature mindset after my gap year - I’d either be at lectures, in rehearsal or with friends, and was able to stay true to myself. It’s quite straightforward to find time when you know what you want to do, and I’ve always been self-disciplined. I don’t really do coasting - it’s always been impressed upon me that you can make anything happen if you put the effort in, and I think that work ethic has carried me through most things.
RARE: I read that you were both at the airport, leaving for Nigeria, when you heard you won the Virgin Media Pioneers’ Global Entrepreneurship Awards competition last year. You’d been running your pop-up for just one year. What do you think you learned from that experience?
Emeka: We entered another competition before that had led us to present our business idea to Branson’s team, which put us on the map a little with Virgin. For The Pioneers’ Awards we were set a challenge to progress the business in a month - winning it got us featured in Bella Naija and on London Live... It catapulted us into this year. We’d done a lot in 2016, and this was the perfect end to the year, further demonstrating that it was worth leaving my job and Ifey deciding not to start down the graduate programme route. We were doing alright. And it sounds obvious, but you really have to be in it to win it...the only way we definitely couldn’t have won was if we hadn’t applied.
Ifeyinwa: The shock of that win was so real! But yeah, it proved that you have to put yourself in these situations in order to give yourself that chance. It’s so easy to think “I might not win,” but you have to give it a go. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. You’re often just as worthy and just as good as anyone else.
RARE: Finally - I have to ask, on behalf of the team at Rare - what are the chances of getting Chuku’s to cater one of our in-house summer parties?
We’re going to hold them to that.
Find out where Chuku’s will pop up next here.
Apply to become a Rare candidate here.