As Wellington Onyenwe’s mother, Adline, tells it, he was only three when he pulled up his small step stool to the kitchen counter to watch her cook for the family.

“I’m telling you,” Adline says, “he was just a baby, asking, ‘Mama, what is this? How do you do this, how do you do that?'”

Even as a toddler, Wellington would stand in the kitchen, observing his mother cook, peppering her with questions. When he was old enough, he began writing down what he learned – once, on the walls; later, on paper.

Young Wellington eagerly watched his grandmother, Abigail Ahaiwe, cook food in the family’s kitchen as well. When she first started visiting, Wellington informed her “you cook just like mama.” At this, his grandmother laughed, and corrected him. “No, your mama cooks like me. Because I taught your mama.”

Wellington was born during a cold German winter to Nigerian parents, Bright Sr. and Adline Onyenwe. As his father advanced in his military career, the family relocated frequently, moving between Germany, Nigeria, and the United States. The family eventually settled in Los Angeles. Aunts, uncles and extended family started to join them in California, and Wellington, used to constant moves and adjustments, settled into life within a large Nigerian community.

While his mother and grandmother taught him about cooking Nigerian food, Wellington was surrounded by mentors from other cuisines. A close family friend (and eventual adopted son) from Germany, “Uncle” Thomas, would visit the family in the states, teaching the subtleties of different European dishes. Wellington, still in elementary school, was already learning the difference between goulash and spaghetti sauce, and how to make the perfect loaded teriyaki street hot dog.

Wellington also found a teacher in his next-door neighbor, Mona Wallace. He recalls walking into her kitchen one day and seeing bags of flour and unpeeled yams waiting for him on the table. Surprised, he realized that Mona, originally from Texas, made all her pies from scratch. Mona taught him how to cook classic Southern dishes, from mac and cheese and candied yams to collard greens, grits, and pies. Although Wellington had lived in South Carolina and Texas for brief periods of time, he recalls his “first time having soul food with Mona, in LA”.

By the time Wellington was a teenager, he had taken his culinary skills and applied them to one holiday in particular: Thanksgiving.

“For Thanksgiving, everybody ate in my house, but nobody cooked – except Wellington.” Adline says. “He would chase me away from the kitchen.”

Wellington used the holiday to try out these American dishes he had been learning, serving turkey five different ways and refining his mac and cheese. He insisted on doing all of the cooking for the family, hosting aunts, uncles, cousins, far-flung cousins, neighbors, and others from their community.

There was one family member, however, who wouldn’t let the family meal become too American. Wellington tells of the many years his grandmother pushed his American food to the side of the table and plopped down a big pot of Nigerian soup.

“We made a compromise and learned how to share the table, half and half… eventually,” Wellington laughs.

Nearing the end of high school, Wellington declined an offer to study culinary arts at Johnson and Wales and instead chose to study Molecular Toxicology and Food Additives at UC Berkeley. There, he was able to study how molecules interact with one another in food, allergens, and different environments.

“They say that in traditional Nigerian families like mine you can be a lawyer, doctor, or a disgrace to the family,” Wellington jokes. “My brother was on his way to becoming a lawyer, so I defaulted to being a doctor. Because I couldn’t be a disgrace!”

But Wellington continued to cook, recounting, “I was a student by day, and cooking cheesecakes all night.” By the grace of California’s cottage food laws, which allow small producers to cook out of their home kitchens, Wellington was able to make and sell cheesecakes out of his own commercially-certified apartment kitchen. His business, Shamiso Foods, sold at local cafes and expanded to selling desserts all over the Bay Area. By the time he graduated from UC Berkeley, Wellington had grown the operation into a commercial kitchen space and employed five people.

Shamiso Foods came with Wellington when he moved to Atlanta to pursue first his MPH, then PhD, at Emory University. In Atlanta, Wellington has downsized his operation, pausing the cheesecakes and choosing to concentrate instead on preparing Nigerian spice and soup mixes, as well as catering Nigerian kebabs, or suya.

“The market is different here, compared to California,” Wellington explains, slipping into a spot-on Southern accent. “They like big weddings and big parties down here.” 

Nigerian food is typically cooked over a fire, and the smoke fueling the bubbling pot of soup becomes a prominent flavor in the dish. But Wellington doesn’t have a fire to cook over in his Atlanta home, so he adapts.

One day after a late night cooking session at Wellington’s new house, a neighbor cautiously approached him, confused. “Did you smell smoke last night at like one o’clock in the morning?” he asked.

“I looked at him and started laughing,” tells Wellington. “That was me!” Without a fire to cook over, Wellington has taken to smoking meats in his backyard before adding them to the soup, to integrate that smoky flavor. For a chef cooking Nigerian food in America, some adjustments are necessary.

I ask him how his American friends tend to react to Nigerian food, and he smiles. “You know what they always tell me? ‘It was really spicy!'”

Nigerian food is spicy – the kind of spicy that coats your mouth, makes you sweat, and builds throughout the meal. Wellington describes it as “spicy, with bold and distinct flavors”, but most Americans tend to only taste the first part.

It’s a conundrum for a chef like Wellington – he doesn’t want to sugarcoat the traditional flavors (the garlic, ginger, dried fish, bitter leaf, and multitude of other herbs), but he wants Americans to taste beyond the spiciness of the food. So, his compromise is to turn down the heat while leaving the bold flavors intact. He makes his spice mixes with varying levels of fire, mitigating the spice for American palates.

“I’m always adjusting”, says Wellington, describing his food. “But I try to enhance, not detract from the flavors.”

Shamiso Foods translates to “a great surprise” in Shona, and the company’s name references Wellington’s approach toward cooking. “It is to go above and beyond,” he says. “It’s quality that is not just for Iron Chef or Michelin-star restaurants. You can bring it home.”

For Wellington, Shamiso Foods is also about a feeling of inclusion. “I want everyone to be able to access my food,” he emphasizes.

Wellington’s idea of accessibility is two-fold. His mother tells of how, as soon as he finished cooking a meal in the family’s kitchen, he would disappear out the front door, delivering leftovers to neighbors. He was constantly cooking back home in California, inviting friends and acquaintances over or delivering weekend brunch to a homeless community near his house. Wellington has always shared his food with anyone around him.

But Wellington’s idea of access and inclusivity in his food goes deeper. Wellington is bringing big, bold Nigerian flavors together in a way that is accessible to people unfamiliar with the cuisine. His Nigerian food doesn’t compromise on the foundational flavors, but he adapts it to some American palates. Through making adjustments to his food, he is bringing more people to the table.

It’s an impossible balance, the straddling of American and Nigerian tastes, but he says he tries to “come as close as possible.”

“So many Nigerian chefs make adjustments and lose the big, bold flavors.” Wellington explains, adding that he doesn’t want to lose the flavors that make Nigerian food distinct. He adapts where he needs to, emphasizing or downplaying flavors, but he doesn’t lose sight of his roots.

Wellington gives an example, talking about sliders he is going to serve at an upcoming event.  Burgers and Suya have become popular in the Nigerian street food scene, and so he is trying his hand at creating his own spice mixes. Wellington is taking Nigerian flavors, adding them to the kebabs and burgers, and working from there. “I try to take traditional flavors, see how things are evolving, and then spit out something new,” he explains.

He tests out his food with his original teachers, the women who taught him how to cook Nigerian food from the beginning. “For one Mother’s Day, when he was in college at UC Berkeley, he sent me frozen soup in the mail.” his mother says. “I don’t know how he did it, but it was superb. I didn’t share it with anyone else.”

I ask him what his barometer for quality in his Nigerian food is, and he replies, thoughtfully, “If my grandmother would recognize the flavors.”

Adline expands. “He used to bring food to his grandmother and ask, ‘Is it different from yours? Tell me the difference.’ She would say, ‘This tastes like mine. The origin.’ And he was proud.”

It’s hard to task a chef to cook, and represent, their family’s cuisine in a different country. Food always evolves as the ingredients differ, palates vary, and cooking methods change.

Wellington doesn’t seem to be bothered much by the differences. “My mixed background shows in my food,” he says, acknowledging his many influences. “And you need to experiment, push the limits, to fuse the flavors.” Wellington finds a way to fuse his many culinary influences, showing threads of Nigerian, German, American “down-south” soul food, and Californian flavors in his cooking. Throughout all of this, he finds a way to include all these flavors at the same table.

As with his food, so with his life. Wellington is working toward bringing his many interests and passions together, from post-PhD plans in health promotion and water sanitation back home in Nigeria to other projects in Afro-Brazilian culture, Capoeira and dance. He’s a man with ideas and passions that go in many directions, but he also finds ways to tie them all together.

The last time Wellington went home to his father’s family in Nigeria, in the southeastern state of Imo, he ate with his older brother and cousin at a roadside eatery owned by his extended family. He recounted feeling the eyes of the people in the restaurant as they looked at him and his older brother.

“You are related to each and every person here,” his cousin reminded them. “They feel connected to you.”

No matter where he is, Wellington remains connected to his home. I ask what Nigerian food does best, and Wellington is quick to reply: “It brings us together”. He talks of community gatherings, family time, and large celebrations, all centered around food.

Food brings the people in Wellington’s life together, and food is also where Wellington brings the many parts of his life together. Wellington is continuously creating, in the kitchen and elsewhere, while remaining connected to his family, his background, and his many influences.

It started with his grandmother and a kitchen step stool. Now, in his life, and in his cooking, he continues to build community around food. This is something his grandmother would recognize.