In recent years, Toronto, Canada, has made a name for itself as more than the hometown of Drake and the 2019 NBA champions. As a part of the nation’s great multicultural experiment, Toronto has specifically become not just its financial center, but its cultural capital as well. Known for celebrations such as Caribana, the world-renowned celebration of Afro-Caribbean heritage created by the local expat community, Toronto is also a hotbed of cosmopolitan cuisine. As the fourth most populous city in North America, it’s a testament to the story of human migration and a place where more than half the population is now a visible minority. According to the 2016 census, 442,015 of those people identified as Black. It only makes sense that a Canadian born, Nigerian-raised, classically trained chef would label himself a “food mixologist” and launch a series of successful pop-ups in that city.
Born Beko Mbeko-Edem, Chef Beko had an affinity for the stove from a young age. “When I was around 2-years-old, I’d scare my mom by constantly trying to touch the hot stove while she was cooking,” Mbeko-Edem says. Instead of punishing him, she used this behavior as a teachable moment. “She let me place my hand next to a hot element so I could gain an understanding of heat from a stove.” By the age of 4, he was his mother’s acting sous chef, helping to make puddings in their home kitchen in Fredericton, NB. His mother, a university professor, traveled for work. “We moved back and forth between different parts of Canada and Nigeria,” he says of his globetrotting youth.
By the time he was old enough for college, Mbeko-Edem not only knew he wanted to be involved in the culinary industry but also that he wanted to be a caterer. “I wanted to do something that was different, but still in touch with my heritage,” he says of his time in his culinary program. Even while he was in college working toward that goal, there were signs of a driven entrepreneur under the chef’s jacket. “I was thinking about how I could reach people and create a brand through catering.” After graduation, he enacted his business strategy by going to high schools and handing out complimentary platters of food. The result? “That got me my very first contract where I catered food for 100 teachers.”
Trial by Fire
Like most chefs in the beginning stages of their careers, Mbeko-Edem found himself in various kitchens. “I’ve worked in fast food restaurants, golf clubs and hotels.” That latter hotel kitchen was in One restaurant, an upscale celebrity haunt owned by a Canadian Food Network celebrity chef who also moonlights as a judge on the Canuck version of “Top Chef.” “I worked the veg station, hot apps, and pantry,” he tells me. When asked about the influence of these different experiences, Mbeko-Edem observes, “I learned a lot from all those kitchens, whether high end or not.” For the chef, his biggest lesson revolved around attention to detail. “You have to make sure those chives are chopped to perfection and the butter fondue for the lobster spoons is on point.” He also attributes the way he runs his business today to those first formative years. “I’m very good at plating because I’ve worked in these environments and it influenced the way I run my business today.”
High-End Afrocentric Nigerian Cuisine
“In traditional African homes, we typically toss everything onto a plate, and even though the food is still fantastic, it’s not something viewed as potentially high-end because of how it’s presented,” admits Mbeko-Edem. “When presented with creative flair and impeccable service however, it becomes something everyone wants to try.” Mbeko-Edem insists his goal is bringing people together through food. “Since we’re a mix of different cultures, I translate both my African heritage and Western techniques into my food.” In fact, his pop-up events encapsulate that ethos. Everything from the food to the Afrobeats played during the events, right down to the design of his merchandise, is African influenced. The merchandise in question is a series of sauces he makes personally and incorporates into his pop-up brunches and dinners.
“Food makes the world happy and is the catalyst through which all greatness is born,” Mbeko-Edem asserts while speaking of racial barriers. “I try to teach people through my character that, no matter the skin color, food is a medium that can connect people.” Of the city’s Black culinary community he says, “Although we keep in touch and support each other regularly, we don’t really have an infrastructure in Toronto’s Black culinary community, so I’m working on creating the idea of each one, teach one.”
You can follow Beko on Instagram to keep up to date on his pop-up events.