Curious Character: Chiefo Chukwudebe, West African Chef & Kitchen Troublemaker
The most trouble Chiefo Chukwudebe, founder of Chiefo’s Kitchen, ever got into during childhood was for baking. Her father traveled for work, leaving her, her sister, and her brother with a nanny in their sleepy Nigerian town. Her trustworthy older sister would convince the nanny to go home (“we’re fine on our own, you must be tired, get some rest, we’ll put ourselves to bed”). As soon as they could, three little pairs of feet, aged 6 through 10, scampered over to the corner market to stock up on sugar, flour, and butter. Lots of butter.
They’d cook into the wee hours of the night—Chiefo made cakes, her sister was in charge of biscuits, her brother was an expert at pies. If they ran out of an ingredient, they’d improvise (salt resembles sugar, right?). The kitchen looked like the Gingerbread Man had thrown a kegger with powder and tins thrown about and steaming cakes piled high. The three bakers would continue their night antics for days until one night they heard their father come home early.
They hid as much evidence as they could—hot-potato-throwing a banana cake into the trash before jumping into bed like sugar-dusted angels. Foot sounds came through the front door, stopped in the kitchen for a gut-dropping moment, then into the hallway to their bedrooms. In the doorway, her father held the banana cake. “Why’d you throw this away, you didn’t want me to have any?” he said.
Chiefo jumped out of bed and exclaimed, “Oh, there’s plenty more!” And she pulled him toward the secret hiding places for cakes, pies and biscuits. The nanny was fired the next day.
Chiefo was born in Boston, but after the first bad winter when she was four months, her father declared his distaste for the cold and convinced his wife and four children to move back to Nigeria to start his dream farm. Chiefo was christened in Nigeria with her name meaning “New Beginnings.”
Chiefo’s eye’s dance when she remembers that time. Her father always imagined owning a big farm, and soon enough they were living in two bungalows on a sloping piece of land with a river and orchards of mangoes and pineapples. “He convinced us to move back to Nigeria by telling us that we could have all the pineapples we could eat. He didn’t tell us that we’d be taking care of all 15 acres of them.” She laughs, “I still love pineapple.”
Her siblings tended the orchards, dug a fish pond and helped care for everything around the farm. Soon there were pigs, chickens, goats, a pond teeming with catfish, five dogs, a cat, hamster, and guppies. “I would boil eggs for the goats and practice my cooking on the pigs,” says Chiefo.
“We could all cook,” she remembers, “but me and my brother would do most of it. It wasn’t ‘till we went on strike that I realized that my older and younger brother could cook.”
Chiefo was always in the kitchen making yam balls and peanut candy. “I liked to make the things that make life more interesting,” she says through a big smile.
In Nigeria, people become lawyers, doctors, and architects, but never cooks. So when Chiefo went to San Francisco for college, she pursued a career in Public Health. “If I was stressed in school, I would bake and share with my friends,” she says, “I loved having people try things they normally wouldn’t.” It wasn’t until she developed an unhealthy obsession with the making of Beesap, a Hibiscus infused drink with hints of pineapple and vanilla, that she decided that she had to start her own life as a cook. “That makes so much more sense,” said her friends and family.
She went back to school in the US and then jetted over to Ludlow, England, home of some of country’s most highly rated restaurants. She spent 18 hours everyday in the kitchen and learned the ins and outs of working a feverish paced restaurant. But England, like Boston, proved too cold and Chiefo returned to the Bay Area.
Chiefo launched her business 3 years ago at La Cocina’s San Francisco Street Food Festival (happening this Friday—get your tix!). Even a broken fryer couldn’t stop Chiefo’s Kitchen from being one of the night’s most top-selling vendors with hits like goat pepper soup and plantains roasted with chocolate rum. She heard everything from “It’s not what I expected” and “the flavors are very bold.” Chiefo has found that a lot of her business is about educating people about what West African cooking actually is. Luckily, with her catering business growing and her Kabocha Squash gracing the hot food bar at the Whole Foods in Noe Valley, love for her cooking is spreading like hot banana cakes.
- Written by Katie Kelly