ALEX OKE

THISDAY Style - - COVER -

Alex Oke is a chef who’s pas­sion­ate about bread, pas­try and con­fec­tions. He trained in clas­si­cal/con­tem­po­rary French cui­sine at the Pa­cific In­sti­tute of Culi­nary Arts in Van­cou­ver, Canada and just re­cently launched his XO Bou­tique Bak­ery in La­gos, Nige­ria. Tell us your fond­est child­hood mem­o­ries of food and pas­tries?

My most vivid mem­ory of child­hood in Ibadan ac­tu­ally in­volves food! I was about five years old when my par­ents had friends over. I re­mem­ber an­nounc­ing, very au­thor­i­ta­tively as a pre­co­cious child, that I had cooked for ev­ery­one. My mum was re­ally the one who’d made that pizza ed­i­ble as she makes the most amaz­ing sweet/ savoury treats, but ev­ery­one was so en­ter­tained, which in turn re­ally tick­led me. I also made nu­mer­ous cakes and pas­tries to­gether with her, and some­times my sis­ter. We bonded a lot over food.

I’ve al­ways de­rived plea­sure from cook­ing food that al­lows peo­ple come to­gether, for­get about ev­ery­thing else just for a mo­ment and smile. That’s where my heart is and I feel thor­oughly blessed to be able to do this pro­fes­sion­ally. When and how did you de­cide to be­come a pas­try Chef?

I went through a brief but in­tense pe­riod of soul search­ing af­ter com­plet­ing my MSc. pro­gramme in the UK. I wanted to try my hand at some­thing I loved do­ing. Un­til then, I’d only tol­er­ated what I per­ceived as the monotony of a cor­po­rate 9am-5pm job, and I fi­nally saw an av­enue by which I could make a rad­i­cal, ful­fill­ing change. Af­ter a three month stint as an NGO vol­un­teer in Is­rael, work­ing with ASSAF (an aid or­gan­i­sa­tion for refugees and asy­lum seek­ers), I en­rolled in a top one year dual culi­nary/pas­try arts course at PICA (Pa­cific In­sti­tute of Culi­nary Arts) in Van­cou­ver, Canada. It was worth the in­vest­ment as I was ex­posed to a brand new world of fine desserts that built me into the patis­serie I am to­day.

Who were the big­gest in­spi­ra­tions for your ca­reer?

My fam­ily. Pro­fes­sion­ally, I’d like to model my ca­reer af­ter Jaime Oliver, who re­mains grounded amidst all his suc­cess, and An­to­nio Ba­chour, pas­try wiz­ard at the St. Regis Bal Har­bor - I can­not wait un­til the day I at­tend one of his master classes some­where around the globe. Where have you worked pro­fes­sion­ally as a pas­try Chef?

I have worked as a sta­giaire at the Fair­mount Ho­tel Van­cou­ver, Beta 5 Choco­lates and Thomas Haas. My first full time gig as a pas­try chef was at Wishes + Luck in East Van­cou­ver on Com­mer­cial Drive. What are the com­mon mis­takes you find pas­try chef in Nige­ria mak­ing?

We em­brace for­eign flavour pro­files in spite of a wealth of ex­otic and trop­i­cal ones to choose from. This is chang­ing how­ever, and ev­ery­day I see chefs in­no­vat­ing with lo­cal pro­duce and in turn of­fer­ing those cre­ations to in­creas­ingly dis­cern­ing clien­tele. As pas­try chefs, we work within cli­mate con­straints more so than other chefs, and so I tend to cut us a bit more slack as what might be seen as a com­mon mis­take in tem­per­ate cli­mates is just “mak­ing it work” here in Nige­ria. Are there pro­fes­sional cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for pas­try chefs? If so, how im­por­tant are they and how are they at­tained?

Cer­ti­fi­ca­tions are cer­tainly im­por­tant to any in­dus­try. To me, they mean you’ve paid your dues as an in­di­vid­ual, and have been ac­cepted into the fra­ter­nity of

pro­fes­sion­als. My caveat, how­ever, is that ev­ery one of us does what he/she can to con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment of our in­dus­try in Nige­ria. We need this now more than ever, as the media shines a spotlight on us.

Aside from gen­eral and spe­cific diplo­mas in the pas­try arts of­fered at a va­ri­ety of in­sti­tu­tions world­wide, cer­ti­fi­ca­tions tend to be of­fered at a na­tional level in coun­tries such as France, where they take their bread, pas­try, sugar and cho­co­late very se­ri­ously. The gov­ern­ment of­fers an “MOF”cer­ti­fi­ca­tion which is the holy grail of patis­serie in France, doc­u­mented in the dra­matic film “Kings of Pas­try.” French pas­try chefs lit­er­ally shed blood, sweat and tears to gain that cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Their de­vo­tion to the craft inspires me. What has been your great­est ca­reer suc­cess and big­gest set­back?

I’m rel­a­tively new to the in­dus­try as it rep­re­sents a ca­reer change for me - ac­tu­ally, I take that back, it’s been a ca­reer dis­cov­ery. I’ve had the op­por­tu­nity to cook along­side Nige­rian peers I re­spect very highly only three and a half months into my re­turn home, that’s huge! I’ve also been blessed in launch­ing XO Bou­tique Bak­ery sooner than I had ex­pected. Ac­cep­tance by my peers and clien­tele alike doesn’t just val­i­date me as a chef, it gives me a plat­form on which to work in el­e­vat­ing our craft.

I’m still wait­ing for that huge set­back, I know it’ll come but when it does, I’ll be ready. What are your plans for the fu­ture and what ad­vice do you have for those try­ing to spe­cial­ize in pas­tries?

I hope to be in­creas­ingly em­pow­ered to give back to my craft in Nige­ria through pos­i­tive in­struc­tion and char­ity work.

My ad­vice for young as­pir­ing pas­try chefs: be pre­pared to work long hours, be slow to anger, frus­tra­tion or judg­ment but quick to learn. Seek to learn from the best, find the branch of the pas­try arts you nat­u­rally grav­i­tate to­wards, and de­velop your...

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