Toyo Idris is on a mission to ignite the fun in cooking as she launches a reality television Cooking programme, cook it.
My meeting with Toyo didn't quite happen till the second attempt, thanks to my mobile phone packing up on the day of our first meet. However, we finally met one Monday morning at Yellow Chilli, Ikeja. Dressed in a sheath dress with wedges, her very short hair and edgy glasses added spunk to a very bubbly personality. She wasn't alone, she was with her daughter (a seven-year-old) and definitely a chip off the old block.
At that time of the morning, the restaurant was almost empty and with little or no distractions of any form, we settled to a short but interesting interview. After introductions, we delved right into our chat. The drink came much later and the delicious fries and boneless chicken I couldn't resist after seeing her daughter tuck into was a delight to my palate. Two constant traits stood out through the interview - her infectious laugh and passion for food.
I asked what she hopes to achieve with cook iT and that set the tone for the interview. Wearing a proud smile on her face, she said: "It's a wholly Nigerian cooking show and ultimately an African cooking show. What we are trying to do is to showcase Nigerian meals as something that is delicious, nutritious and can compete favourably with other meals all over the world."
In her 40's, she has a passion for two things, namely sports and food. She played hockey up to national level. A traveler, she describes experiencing cuisine from different cultures as one of her strengths. "Any country I find myself, I experience their local cuisine to the best of my financial ability and time spent there. I have little aversion to unusual meals; though I haven't eaten a frog yet but I have eaten snake and alligator meat in the past and found them very palatable. And I can eat pepper in any form, raw or cooked."
Little wonder she finds Nigerian cuisine lacking in areas of international exposure and marketing. "In my various travels which includes touring European cities such as Paris, Rome and Milan, finding Nigerian meals is usually a problem. In the United Kingdom, it's easier to find but when you do, it's only patronized by Nigerians and a few Africans. But we patronize continental and other cultures cuisines here in Nigeria and anywhere we find ourselves."
Speaking in short bursts and eyes flashing, Toyo continued: "Look at where we are now; it's a modern restaurant with Nigerian dishes as its flagship especially with 'out of Africa experience'. This is the kind of eating experience I intend to promote. It's all about Nigerian meals. I want to change people's perception of Nigerian meals as a second choice to continental meals. I believe Nigerian meals can compete favourably with international meals. We need to be able to experience our indigenous meals in sophisticated settings anywhere in the world."
I reminded her that there were restaurants currently doing that and she replied, "Yes, there are but not many are doing so creatively. Charity starts from home and we need to start promoting what is ours in a confident way to attract others to it."
For her, the possibilities with our indigenous cuisine are endless. She led me through various nutritional values of everyday ingredients and food stuff. "One thing about Nigerian foods that I found out is their rich nutritional values. What we are trying to do is push our cuisine out there to appeal to all. My plan is to make it internationally acceptable and marketable, thus creativity in presentation of our meals is key.
"Let me tell you about two things we've been able to do successfully in Nigeria, Nollywood and Music. Though Nollywood is unplanned and music is planned, they're both representing us positively internationally. My thinking is if we've done that with our music and movies, we should do same for the Nigerian cuisine."
Toyo has identified quite a number of notions to debunk and one of them is that cooking is meant for women. One of the adverts online print and electronic scream, "Gentlemen! Debunk the notion that cooking is only for housewives! Register to participate on cook iT - a cooking reality TV show, where the winner goes home with a brand new car and N1.5 million naira."
But that's not the only one. "One other thing I am trying to do for this project is to debunk the notion we don't have food varieties on this part of the world. I think the challenge is that we are not creative with the ingredients that we do have. I also intend to use food as a map into showcasing our culture."
As we were served our meal, she went into detail about condiments used, process of sautéing the sauce and the delicate manner the boneless chicken was marinated. A chef she is not, but she's definitely not a novice in the kitchen. Call her a foodie or food enthusiast and you won't be wrong. "I'm in love with my meals. I cook anything as long as people can eat it anywhere in the world. I might now eat it and find out I don't like it but so far it's edible, I'll try it."
She considers cooking as an art from spices used to the overall layout of the food. No facet of food is underestimated with Toyo who deems cookware, chinaware, the process of preparing meals and even the ambience of the dining area an experience in itself.
Like every Reality TV show, there is a star chef, Bukky Koleosho, a Nigerian chef resident in UK and author of Contemporary Nigerian Cuisine cookbook (which provides recipes and methods of enhanced, yet authentic Nigerian dishes for the western audience) is the one for this cooking show. As the winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook award in 2010, she will be mentoring and guiding participants.
Cook iT would help promote NAFDAC's campaign against food and allied products' adulteration. It would also collaborate with Wavecrest College of Hospitality, a monotechnic offering education and training in hospitality and tourism. Her set will be on their premise.
"These are part of the things we are trying to project. The hospitality industry is booming and chefs are an integral part of this industry. One of our objective is also to create career opportunities. Everything has moved away from the mediocre way of doing things. So why can't we do same with our meals. We are also going to use this opportunity to showcase the nutritional values of our meals."
I asked how this would be different from a slew of other programmes such as Knorr Taste Quest, Making of a Chef and others in that sphere? It's a question she is obviously prepared for: "cook iT is different in that this is a challenging production that is going to engage participants, viewers, sponsors and everybody. You're going to be dying to watch the next episode."
Not quite convinced I probed further. Should we expect hair trigger eruptions and chef-imposed meltdowns characteristic of reality TV cooking programmes a la Gordon Ramsey, Hell Kitchen, Master and Kitchen Nightmares, where drama gets in the way of knowledge it seeks to impact?
"No," she replied. "Have you watched Master Chef UK? In a way that's what I'm modeling it around that. Out of all of the cooking reality shows the one that really intrigues me is Master Chef UK, the original one which is less drama and more about the meal. In a way that's more of a model of what we want to do. I intend to focus more on the food rather than the drama. I know reality TV shows come with some form of drama, so it's all about achieving a balance between both."
This is her first foray into TV production, but she is not a green horn in the entertainment and media terrain. "I have been in the advertising industry for almost 20 years. I worked with Bluebird Communications, Centrespreadfcb and KWT but went solo in 2010," she said.
Auditions will be taking place in four cities - Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt and Abuja, from where 60 participants will be invited to the "Cook Camp" and a final number of 18 participants will be shortlisted for the weekly Tv show.