A whiff of a calming yet unfamiliar scent welcomes me as I walk into ILĖ, the venue for a chef’s 7-course BYOB immersive dining experience, I am excited to attend in person. On the menu is a Nigerian spread featuring pepper soup, jollof rice, suya, puff puff and a few other delicacies, already putting my taste buds on high alert for new flavors.
A cozily decorated space with earthy hues sets the tone for a casual supper at a communal table—a meal shared with strangers, united by the taste of another land. The hostess offers a hibiscus drink that is enticing to see and sip.
As guests begin to settle in, the prep kitchen hums with activity. There’s chopping, washing, organizing, plating and more as afrobeats play in the background, slowly growing louder to announce the start of a culinary journey. The host is Nigerian chef Tolu “Eros” Erogbogbo.
Chef Eros is on a quest to put Nigerian food on the global map, and like many of his West African counterparts, he is doing it in his own way with the dining experience which began in 2022, ILĖ Bistro in Culver City which opened in 2023, and his catering company with event clients to include the Coachella Valley Music Festival, all while earning mentions on CNN and Forbes.
Serving All the Senses
“We recently got our liquor license, so we’re excited to introduce California to African wines and beers. We’re also working on a dinner time special at the bistro, showcasing some contemporary Nigerian and African dishes in a tapas, small plates type of sharing experience,” says Chef Eros, whose fast-casual bistro proved the perfect research grounds to finetune his fine dining concept. At the private dining location, an elegant multi-course meal is served.
Chef Eros is in attendance, guiding you through the tasting and sharing stories about the culture, ingredients, aromas, textures and more. “I see a plate like a canvas, and all the elements represent different emotions, whether it’s the texture or flavor of the ingredient that gives you a certain feeling,” he says.
At the bistro, you choose a rice or soup bowl as your base and then add a protein and other sauces/toppings. Consider it a personal crash course in Nigerian food.
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“I’m passionate about storytelling and wanted to create a space where I could authentically be myself,” says the chef, who sees the dining room as an opportunity to express himself through his culinary prowess and dive deep into his background for those unfamiliar with Nigerian cuisine. “For me, it’s about hitting all the senses.”
The visual appeal of an airy venue with high ceilings was one. Creating an ambiance that was rustic and natural was another. Fela Kuti and even old-school Nigerian sounds help channel authentic West African energy. The smell of sweet spices like aidan fruit, which is also used in pepper soup, provides a homey mood. In addition, the aroma of all the other spices in the kitchen adds another layer of inviting scents.
Chef Eros Packs in the Passion
Chef Eros’ culinary training is unconventional. He comes from a business background that eventually included food. His first business was at 13, selling snacks in Nigeria to his classmates. He studied international business management in the United Kingdom, during which he realized his love for food, leading to his first restaurant job and starting a business selling marinated chicken.
When he moved back to Nigeria, he opened his first restaurant. He now owns Cookie Jar bakery, Eros & Gourmet catering company and ILÉ Eros, serving authentic Nigerian food with a modern twist, all located in Lagos. With clientele such as President Emmanuel Macron of France and Noble Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, he received the moniker of Billionaire Chef.
One of his favorite dishes is pepper soup. “I go back to that because it has such an influence. It reminds me of growing up with my grandmother, but also because of the versatility of it and how many ways it can be presented. We serve that soup with different proteins, and it takes on the body of that protein. We worked with mushroom puree, carrot puree, cauliflower puree and the soup doesn’t lose its identity, but also gives space for the other ingredients to shine.”
Chef Eros sources all the spices directly from Nigeria, supporting local farmers, something he knew from the start was a priority. The versatile menu also helps address food waste, an issue rampant in the industry.
Cauliflower used in one dish is turned into a sauce for another. The rice at the bottom of the jollof pot is used as a crispy salad addition. “There are different ways to repurpose ingredients in a way that allows it to shine again, a second life,” he shares.
He has certainly observed some general misconceptions about Nigerian food. One is that Nigerian food is too spicy, and another is it doesn’t look good. Chef Eros sees it as a matter of perfecting for palate and presentation.
“We’ve seen the evolution of Japanese, Chinese, Indian cuisine and how they’ve been able to adopt new processes and cooking methods whilst still staying true to their flavors. But we haven’t seen a lot of that with Nigerian food,” he shares.
“That’s where I came to realize it was time for us to start to present our food better and apply modern cooking techniques to the same set of ingredients to produce new Nigerian menus. It’s not just myself, but other chefs, not just yet in America, but in Nigeria at the moment and even in parts of the UK, especially in London, who are now keyed into that and are preparing Nigerian ingredients with modern approaches.”
Leaving a Lasting Impression
For others in the culinary world looking to make their mark, he has one mantra: find your voice. “This industry is highly saturated, and the only way to stand out is to have a voice that you agree with. It’s not enough to say I’m a Nigerian chef. I must go further and find a way to dig deep. That’s where I am right now,” he shares. “We’re going further and further to try and define who you truly are and what that identity is.”
Chef Eros shares this learning lesson from his journey. “The moment you’re able to identify yourself as a chef, you’re able to communicate that to the world, and people can see you and know you, that becomes your unique selling point. It’s very important to first find that and then going further from that is to know how to communicate that voice to your audience and have the right people around you.”
Part of the trailblazer’s efforts in amplifying his voice and impact is partnering with RED to become the first African Chef to join their (RED)UCATOR program, where he supports the organization’s mission to fight HIV/AIDS and the injustices that enable pandemics to thrive. He’ll use his platform to amplify their message and gain further awareness and support. All money generated by (RED) goes to the Global Fund, one of the world’s largest global health funders.
“My love for cooking comes from my love for my culture and the food that I grew up with and the experience around dining and sitting at the dining table with my family and sharing our life experiences,” says Chef Eros. “As I grew up and started to lean toward the culinary industry, I felt Nigerian food especially didn’t have a place in the global food map. My motivation comes from the fact that one day I would like to see Nigerian restaurants around the world.”