The tagline on Tunde Wey’s website reads, “Nigeria. Independent since 1960. Making dope food since forever.” Easily put, that’s what this refreshingly casual young chef is all about—love of country, family, and cooking. He’s the real independent, making no apologies for starting out just a few years ago, for being self-trained, for not caring about foodie fads or celebrity restauranteurs.
After landing in America at the age of 16 to study science, Wey weaved in and out of college and worked in a variety of trades, including a stint at Wendy’s and as a West African dance teacher. He later moved to Detroit where his aunt lives, and in 2013 teamed up with his former roommate Peter Dalinowski to open a successful concept restaurant called Revolver—which works with a rotating cast of chefs.
“I became interested in nurturing the concept of cooking for other people,” Wey explains of his first turn cooking Nigerian cuisine as the chef at Revolver. “My first dinner was for about 100 people, and I think I called my mom or aunt just 30 minutes before service for a quick refresher.” These matriarchs are really the ones who taught him how to cook back in his hometown of Lagos. The food Wey makes is Nigerian, traditional savory dishes he watched his family whip up as a young boy, like smoked crayfish, jollof rice, black beans with coconut pudding, and peppered goat head. “I want to contemporize Nigerian food without changing it,” Wey notes. “I want people to reconsider how they consider immigrants cooking food.” In essence, he wants to make classic food from his country in a way that isn’t watered-down or mixed into a fancy hybrid concept. It’s not about some pan–West African food movement. It’s simpler than that. At its core, it’s a home-cooked meal.
In April of last year, after blindly emailing chefs across the country asking if he could cook in their kitchens, Wey began his culinary tour hosting pop-up dinners titled Lagos in cities including Chicago, Buffalo, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. Because he is not yet a nationalized American citizen, he traveled by Greyhound bus, as flying and getting through TSA smoothly wasn’t really an option. “My wife called it a vanity tour, I called it a sanity tour,” Wey says, laughing. The journey also led him to New Orleans, and after a stint at St. Roch Market, he’s now beginning to really settle there, with plans to open his own permanent restaurant in the next two months. He’s also being filmed for a New York Times–produced documentary series about his cooking trajectory, out this fall.
Wey is certainly made for the camera. He’s cheeky and sarcastic, often stirring his stews and blending his spices while wearing aviator glasses, a bowler hat, and vintage tee, a look reminiscent of the attitude-laden, hipster chefs like Danny Bowien and David Chang. While Wey may be bordering on that kind of cool in the oft-pretentious culinary world, the star power is precisely what he’s trying to avoid. For him, food is simple, food is food, and, as he’s said many times, “It doesn’t need accessorizing.”
“My beef with the food scene in general is that it’s just kind of weird,” Wey says. “All the trendy restaurants in all these cities look the same—same plate work, same napkins, same white marble counters. We need more diversity across the board.” Something different is definitely what Wey is bringing to the table, and it’s worth paying attention to. “I am probably the worst Nigerian cook I know, but the best any American might meet.” If you don’t believe him, just take a bite.
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