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...