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ILÉ Means Home: Chef Tolu Eros’s Culinary Journey and Vision for The Future

Cover Image for ILÉ Means Home: Chef Tolu Eros’s Culinary Journey and Vision for The Future
By Eddie Carter
Posted
Categories:Interview

Growing up in Benin City and Lagos, chef Tolu Eros learned that food could be both a business and a form of art. After earning his international business degree in the UK, Eros traveled the world, studying different cuisines and cultures, eventually opening a restaurant in his home country of Nigeria. However, chef Eros realized that if he wanted to bring West African cuisine to the mainstream, he would have to move it to the main stage. Eros is now the chef of ILÉ, a communal dining room in Los Angeles serving experimental West African dishes that tell the story of his global culinary journey. We caught up with Eros and business partner David Olusoga to talk about African cuisine, dinner parties, and ILÉ’s future.

What makes West African cuisine so unique?

 

Chef Tolu Eros: I would say the first thing that makes it unique is the robust flavors that you have with West African cuisine. The flavors are very bold, and a lot of the ingredients that are sourced are natural and organic to the region. We use a variety of spices to create umami and balance the flavor of our dishes. On our menu you’ll see a range of sweet and hot spices, a lot of vegetables, plantains and sweet potatoes. Fish, lamb, and goat are all staples on our dining table.

David Olusoga: Our food is very versatile for dietary restrictions. We have vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free options, and I think that’s what surprises a lot of people when they learn about African food. They hold this misconception that it is meat heavy for some reason, but I would say half of our tasting menu has no protein in it. 

West Africa’s most popular dish, Jollof Rice.

Why did you choose Los Angeles?

 

Chef Eros: When I came to Los Angeles for the first time in 2017, I couldn’t find any noteworthy West African experiences. I learned of a few mom-and-pop type restaurants, and while they were serving West African cuisine, it was not to the level that I was used to or that I wanted to celebrate. Cuisines from the rest of the world like China, Japan, and Italy have transcended and evolved over time. I really wanted to see West African cuisine go down that same path. With my restaurant in Nigeria, it was like preaching to the choir. I felt like we would have a lot more impact if we opened in a market where West African cuisine was not readily available.

David: Chef Eros can provide a completely different experience than what the normal mom-and-pop places can offer due to his execution and knowledge as an international chef. The germination of his technique from his time spent in Nigeria helps to make our food global rather than just another community offering. We want to touch our community, but we also want our friends from other nationalities that may have experienced the mom-and-pop restaurants to know that our approach is more refined and adds a lot of storytelling to the experience.

ILÉ’s intimate dining room.

 

ILÉ seems like an intimate dinner party. Is that accurate?

 

Chef Eros: We chose a dinner party style because we wanted to celebrate dining room culture. I grew up around a dining table, where conversations were intentional, and I really missed that part of going out to dine. What you find at the dining table here is that, while the experience is exceptional because of the entertainment that’s coming with the food and the presentation, you’re also interacting with people from different walks of life, from different cultures, and you are able to share your life experiences. You’re going to leave with not just knowledge about a new cuisine, but also knowledge about another industry, another person’s culture, and another life that’s being lived.

David:  Our experience is more high energy and truly immersive. You never know who you’re going to end up being paired with, and we like the spontaneity of that. Like with a Japanese omakase experience, I’ve always enjoyed learning about Japanese culture as well as the personalities of the people next to me. It’s great to take that familiar concept and then interpolate it with this African experience.

 

“It’s more than just food. It’s a completely immersive cultural experience.”

 

What impact has being an international chef had on your culinary journey?

 

Chef Eros: Being born in Benin city had a huge cultural impact on my food. It is the cultural Mecca of West Africa. I grew up around family, friends, and people who were very gifted artists from that region, and that helped me learn that food could be used as a form of art. I also grew up in Lagos, where commerce was the order of the day. Going from a culturally rich environment to a commerce rich environment developed my brain for not just food as an art, but also as a form of business.

While studying international business in the UK, I learned how to run a business in different parts of the world, and I was also able to interact with many different people from varying cultures. There was a little bit of a culture shock moving back to Nigeria, but going back helped me become more culturally aware. I then started to travel around other parts of Africa and Europe and learned a lot about the cuisine of other regions, and what they’ve done to transform, grow, and evolve their food over time.

Coming to the US and taking all of that knowledge from traveling and putting it on a plate is really what makes me who I am. My journey has heavily influenced what happens at my dining table and that’s why you find that with dining at ILÉ, it’s more than just food. It’s a completely immersive cultural experience.

A palm wine poached pear with Egusi cream.

Where do you see ILÉ in the future?

 

Chef Eros: I see ILÉ becoming a movement. For the Yoruba people of Nigeria, ilé means home. And, for me, that home doesn’t only have to be Nigeria. As our business grows and as the opportunities present themselves, I see us turning into an environment that hosts different cultures and expresses those cultures over a multi-faceted dining room concept. Imagine a house with multiple dining rooms, where each room is celebrating a particular culture or cuisine, highlighted by a chef from that region producing a high level culinary experience where you’re not just coming to eat, but you’re coming to learn and immerse yourself in their culture.

Photo by @xoxohadas
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