If you’re going to try Nigerian food for the first time, it might as well be with a table full of strangers in someone else’s home.
This is the central idea behind “Chow Club”.
Chef Wellington Onyenwe comes from a Nigerian family, but his culinary influences come from all over the map. He has owned and operated his own catering business, Shamiso Foods, for years, and his food reflects his many influences. He brings together flavors much like the way he brings together people; often, with joy, and over the course of a meal.
Yohana Solomon, one of the founders of Chow Club, first noticed Wellington’s passion for food when he participated in a pop-up Atlanta Underground Market event. “He is passionate about what he does,” she explains. “I truly appreciated his excitement when talking about food.”
And Wellington, Yohana adds, “can talk about food for days. So I know this is somebody I can work with.”
After seeing Wellington’s food at the Underground Market, Yohana and her business partner Amanda Plumb invited him to cook for one of their monthly supper club gatherings, held under the name “Chow Club.” This monthly event features food from around the world, cooked by immigrant chefs or chefs from that culture, and it is held in Amanda’s home.
While planning the dinner, Wellington said he realized that “this might be the first time these people have had Nigerian food.” The supper club diners were obviously interested in trying the cuisine, but they might not know what to expect from a chef cooking southeastern Nigerian food.
Yohana explains why Chow Club focuses on lesser-known cuisines. “People want to try Nigerian food, but if they were in a restaurant, they might not know what to order,” she says. “But here, without judgment, they might be more adventurous.”
The Chow Club tables are laid out next to each other, each covered in mismatched tableware, candles, and West African print cloth. The small tables seat six to ten people – a size big enough to provide cover for any awkward silences, but small enough to ensure mutual connections and interests. Before the meal, diners mingle and peruse the menus laid out at each seat.
The guests are excited. Some have attended Chow Club dinners before, while others have been invited by neighbors or coworkers. Most people I talk to are excited to try these foods listed on the menu, and everyone can smell the flavors wafting out of the kitchen.
Wellington’s introduction to this four-course Nigerian meal is a steaming-hot bowl of pepper soup. The room immediately fills with the smell of fish and herbs, and our stomachs are warmed with the earthy, slightly bitter flavors of the broth.
The next course is sweet black molasses rub sliders, held together with a Nigerian flag toothpick. This dish is the sweet counterpart to suya (a savory and spicy peanut based kebab that Chef Wellington also specializes in) and a play on the burgers that are starting to appear on the Nigerian street food scene; the Americans at the meal seem intrigued by a Nigerian spin on a familiar dish. I spy one man casually lick the last of the sweet black molasses sauce off of his plate, and another woman carefully stick the Nigerian flag toothpick into her hair.
The room starts to get louder as the ice is broken and the groups begin to freely discuss the plates. The small group dynamics (and the wine brought by some diners) enable flowing conversation, and there is one dominant topic of conversation: food. Everyone is talking about flavors, notes, and impressions, and, of course, the delicious dishes.
The entree arrives, and, with it, an explanation. Wellington prefaces the course with the gentle suggestion that Nigerians would eat the fufu (pounded yam), egusi soup, and chicken with their right hand. He explains that it is polite etiquette, as well as an acknowledgment of the right hand of God and the”hand to receive blessings”/“blessed hand.”
Willie Bower, a previous Chow Club guest, is trying Nigerian food for the first time. He expresses how he enjoyed having the explanation for the dish. “Sometimes there might be food and I’ll have no idea how to eat it – this is the spoon?” he says, gesturing toward the fufu. “Then I learn about how to eat it, and why – someone explaining the culture of it to you- and it makes sense.”
Americans don’t eat like this very often. Many people are hesitant, but most dive straight in, gamely trying different techniques. The easiest comparison for fufu is the texture of mashed potatoes, and some people are messier than others. But when each table is full of people just as uncoordinated as you, some barriers disappear.
With the entrees, people start to talk about the expectations they brought with them to the meal. Many of the diners, even those who are unfamiliar with Nigerian food, express their surprise at the moderate spice. Many expected it to be hotter, spicier, words they had heard associated with West African cuisine.
I sit at a table with a Nigerian guest, Olufunmilayo Larinde, who goes by Funmi. She acknowledges his adjustments in the food. “This food was adapted to be palatable for Americans,” she says, before quickly adding, “but it doesn’t take away anything.”
Wellington visits each table at the end of the meal, and explains, “I’m not trying to pull any punches.”
“At a Nigerian restaurant, you may be running for the door because of the spice before you get a dose of the flavor,” he responds. He wanted to give people an experience where they could taste the flavors of Nigerian food without being overwhelmed by the heat. His cooking style adjusts, depending on who is at the table.
As the diners finish the meal with puff puff, a fried dough dessert, and zobo drink, a ginger infused hibiscus tea, Wellington continues to field questions about the food. Numerous people ask him how he had done this dish, that sauce, or that meat.
Wellington answers with a mischievous smile, adopting a thick Nigerian accent to say, “I cannot tell you all of our secrets.” Diners persist, asking about ingredients and the spice mixes he sells. For many of them, they had eaten their first Nigerian meal, and they wanted to know more.
This is the magic of Chow Club- the cuisine and the people sitting next to you may be unfamiliar, but by the end of the meal, you want to know a bit more about both. As the groups gather their things and leave for the night, they exchange Facebook friend requests, or call out “see you next month!”
Wellington remains in the kitchen as the diners are heading out the door, cleaning up with the aid of many helping hands. It is night one of a two-night run for the supper club, and he has to execute the same meal tomorrow. He will also probably be asked and answer many of the same questions, as a new group of guests eat a Nigerian meal for the first time. He seems happy, content, and tired.
Many guests pass by the kitchen or the hosts with final comments and thanks. Funmi ends the meal with a few words. “I mean this as a compliment,” she says, prefacing her comment with genuine sincerity. “It was a nice, home-cooked meal. A nice, home-cooked, Nigerian meal.”
This simple compliment encapsulates Wellington’s approach toward food and cooking. His food tastes homemade because, simply, he is cooking the way he learned in his home. Wellington’s strength as a chef lies in the way that he is able to express the flavors of his home and his community to a house packed with strangers. For the lucky dining members of Chow Club one evening this April, we were included as part of his family.