Ifeyinwa Frederick and I are the same age, but she seems to have acquired a lifetime of knowledge and a variety of skills in less than a quarter of a century and has spent most of those years on stage, or watching the stage and thinking about food. At 23 years old, Ifeyinwa, or ‘Ifey’ to friends (with the ‘y’, please, I’m reminded) runs a Nigerian-inspired tapas lounge, Chuku’s with her brother, calls her family her ‘squad’ and has recently returned to the UK after living in the French Caribbean and mainland France, where she was perfecting her French and teaching English.
gal-dem caught up with the foodie, entrepreneur, advocate of mental health awareness, performer and all round wunderkind to see if she could drop some knowledge and let her wisdom rub off on us.
gal-dem: Tell us about Chuku’s and how did you come up with it?
Chuku’s is the Nigerian-inspired tapas lounge. It’s the place to come to chop, chat and chill, with ‘chop’ being Nigerian pidgin English for eat. We opened our doors to the public for the first time in August 2015 and by the end of the year, despite being just 4 months old and only having held two events, we were listed as one of the top five African pop-up restaurants in 2015. This, I think, was a result of our unique offering. The Chuku’s experience is about more than just food. From the chilled-out African beats to the Lagos Monopoly on our bookshelf, Chuku’s gives guests a taste of Nigerian culture not just Nigerian cuisine.
2016 is set to be an even bigger and busier year for us and I’m excited for what’s to come. We operate as a pop-up at the moment but the long-term plan is to have a permanent space so guests can eat, chat and relax with us whenever they want.
The idea itself came from my brother. We had both noticed that Nigerian food lacked a strong presence on the London and UK food scene and had previously spoken about setting up a food business to address this. But the conversation came and went as we never hit upon the right idea. Fast forward a couple of years and my brother, inspired by his time living in Spain, had the idea for a Nigerian tapas lounge.
Tell us about your childhood, where did you grow up?
I grew up on the border of East London and Essex, though my “true London” friends consider me more Essex than London and I’d probably agree. I spent my childhood in the same house that I live in today, with my mum and my three siblings. Add in my dad, who used to come to visit each weekend or take us down to his, then that’s my squad! The six of us have always been a tight unit which is something that I regularly give thanks for. They’re the foundation on which I’m building my empire.
Like most people my childhood had its ups and downs but nothing that I would stand here today and complain about. We hardly had an abundance of money but I was fortunate enough to have parents that were able to offer an abundance of love and encouragement. My parents both gave me a number of opportunities and taught me how to make the most of them. But most importantly they gave me the space and freedom to grow into the person I wanted to be. From a relatively early age, I was allowed to make key decisions about the direction of my life. My parents and my siblings may have advised me but the final decision was always mine and they were always prepared to stand by and support my choice. To this day, it’s the same. In that respect I was incredibly fortunate growing up and whilst back then I would have bemoaned the lack of Sky and a dishwasher, now I see that I had something better – independence.
Have any women shaped you to become who you are today – if so, who?
Without a doubt, my mum and my two sisters. I don’t think there’s enough space for me to write about all the ways that they’ve shaped me so I’ll just say this. When you’ve always been able to lean on and look to two ambitious women, who work smart, laugh hard and love even harder, you wouldn’t dream of being anything less than that as an example for your little sister. With my mother and big sister ahead of me and my little sister behind me, I’m very much driven to being the best possible version of myself.
You’re a foodie, an entrepreneur and a performer – have you always had a creative outlet?
It’s funny you ask that because until recently I didn’t think of myself as being particularly creative. I was just me, “Ifey”. But I have actually always been a creative individual. And now I recognise that the times I’ve felt most frustrated in life were when I wasn’t using my creative energy.
As I said, my first love was dance and even before I formally joined a dance school, I was always dancing. At school I seized the opportunities there were to be on the stage, whether dancing or acting and when I was 16 I set up my own dance school. University was pretty similar with my diary full of rehearsals as well as lectures and essay deadlines. Whilst Cambridge University was a demanding three years, my time was made there by the productions I was involved in. I was just as proud of my final degree as I was of the play about mental health that my friend and I had created and put on in my final year.
Since graduating, my outlets for my creativity have changed. My performing arts activity has slowed and I have found other ways to release my creative energy: business, the Grey Matters blog and even teaching.
Why do you think food (especially in London) brings people together? What made you want to merge Spanish culture with Naija culture?
By nature we’re social beings, but we currently live quite separate lives, even when people live in the same house. We spend most of our days engaged in activity devoid of real conversation. Mealtimes are an opportunity for us to revert to our nature. Whether sitting down or tucking into street food, it’s a chance for us to connect and share experiences.
The decision to mix Spanish tapas culture with Nigerian was two-fold. Adopting the tapas serving-style caters for our guests’ potential lack of familiarity with Nigerian cuisine. As opposed to committing to a single dish, guests can choose a selection of Nigerian mini-dishes to share. This not only makes the experience less overwhelming, but allows guests to try a wider range of flavours. The second reason is for the vibe. My brother regaled me with stories of Sunday afternoons that he spent hanging out in a tapas bar with friends. I couldn’t think of anywhere I could do something similar in London. There is a need for chill-out spots here and we wanted Chuku’s to provide that.
Tell us about Grey Matters. What made you want to start it? What was it like to hear and share other people’s journeys?
Grey Matters originally started as a play, the mental health production I mentioned earlier. It was a multi-room experience based on interviews I’d conducted with people with mental illnesses and I decided to put that on as I was frustrated by the silence surrounding mental health issues at my university. The success of the production proved to me the need for more open discussion about mental health issues and I felt unable to leave the project there. As my finals approached I had the idea of doing another set of interviews and compiling them into a book. After a chat with a friend, a book became a blog and, just a few hours after my last exam finished, I put a callout for interviewees for the new project.
It was difficult at times to hear some stories but in the main I was often encouraged by the journeys of our contributors. Their lives showed that having a mental health problem doesn’t have to define who you are and that gave me even further impetus to share them. The tales of lived experience impacted on people and gave hope to some and food for thought to others. It’s for this that, although we no longer publish new posts, we’ve kept the site live so anyone who needs it can access these stories.
Where do you see yourself in a few years?
In a few years’ time I see myself still running Chuku’s with our flagship permanent restaurant now open. I also see myself working back in the performing arts space, whether it’s re-opening my dance school or producing new plays.
Do you have any tips for young women who want to start up their own restaurant and/or pop up?
Do you believe in your idea? If yes, then just start. All your other questions will get answered along the way. And, if the answer is no – belief and passion are prerequisites to success – keep looking until you find something you do believe in.
And there you have it. If you’re London-based, Chuku’s tapas lounge is back for one of their infamous pop-ups on Sunday 10 April, so go and #chopchatchill. For the rest of the world, you’ll just have to travel to their flagship restaurant when it’s up and running, but don’t worry – clearly you won’t have to wait very long.