Singbo k Bienvenu, the executive chef of 355 Group, spoke with ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA on his life, career and the culinary world, which he is committed to extending its frontiers working through his outfit and in partnership with professionals in the food value chain
Singbo k Bienvenu otherewise known as Chef Bien, is a Beninoise, with a life – long interest in the food industry where he presently works as an executive chef, with over 15 years experience under his belt.
He holds a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Hotel Management from La Gastronomie, one of the privately run higher institutions in his country, Benin Republic. He is the executive chef of 355 Group, with thriving branches in Lagos, Abuja, Calabar, Enugu, and Ghana, with Liberia branch on the horizon.
Chef Bien had an interesting childhood growing up under the roof and tutelage of his uncle. He left his parents at age six back in his country home for the city to live with his uncle. Growing among women as the only boy among seven women, he learnt street wise.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, he is grateful for this as he tells you that: ‘‘Being away from my parents really helped me and I really understood what was expected of me even from age of six I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.’’
Cooking at age 10
One would had expected that as the only boy among seven women, he would be spared domestic chores, including cooking but not so for Chef Bien, as he was made to partake in the tasks, which exposed him to cooking.
He quickly adjusted to this life style and at an early age developed the flair for cooking and at age 10, according to him, ‘‘I developed the flair for cooking at such a tender age and at age 10 I was cooking with my cousins already and most times I did the grinding of tomatoes and pepper for cooking. I started loving it from there and sometimes I will voluntarily take charge of the cooking.
‘‘I really enjoyed every bit of it and also then having an uncle working as a chef in Nigeria I was totally in love with the whole thing even if it wasn’t easy. The only thing you could call me for and I wouldn’t be angry was being close to fire or being where cooking was going on.’’
The journey to becoming a chef
Unknown to him at that tender age, fate was beckoning him to the culinary world as he began to take intrinsic interest in cooking and food. Seeing how happy people were when eating, the smiles and joy that they exuded were some of the things that attracted him the more into the world of gastronomy and his decision to follow in the footsteps of his uncle.
‘‘The love of seeing people happy when they are eating good food and the happiness in their faces while eating, I told myself that if these people can be this happy then I have to make then happier by becoming a chef and since then I knew I could only be a chef,’’ says Chef Bien.
Therefore, after the completion of his Secondary School Certificate Education (SSCE), he entered for his diploma programme in Hotel Management in 2003 and graduated in 2005 with a Higher National Diploma (HND).
His joy at being admitted to study Hotel Management knew no bound, however, he recalls the mixed reactions from his parents over his choice of career path. While his mother parted him on the back and gave him all the support and encouragement he needed to pursue his dream but not so with his father, who had other plans for his beloved son.
‘‘My mother was supportive but my father was totally against it as he wanted me to become a Customs officer and he was ready to spend any amount of money for me to pass the exam because he was a business man and having his first son as a Customs officer would have facilitated things for him at the Benin Republic – Nigeria border.
‘‘But when I said I wanted to be a chef it was war and sponsoring my education in the first year wasn’t easy for me but I didn’t have to give up as I sometimes have to trekked to school from my town to the capital, Porto Novo. The second year was the worst as I was suspended for not paying the second term school fees for almost two months and sometimes I have to work in bars to make sure I got money to pay my school fees.
‘‘It wasn’t easy but the passion and determination kept me through and today I am talking about over a decade experience as a chef.’’
Coming to Nigeria
Done with schooling and now set to cut his teeth in the food industry, he decided to relocate to Nigeria in 2007 because he was confident of founding his footing in Nigeria. And today, he is glad that he followed his instinct as he says that he loves every moment of it and no course for regret whatsoever.
‘‘I moved to Nigeria then because I saw Nigeria as my starting point and I never regretted it,’’ he says of his journey in Nigeria where he landed his first job as a cook and steward in an Italian household in Lekki, Lagos.
‘‘I started from a private home in Lekki as cook and steward. That was my first experience after finishing my course and it wasn’t easy at all but I knew what I was supposed to do when it comes to cooking, but the language barrier wasn’t easy. I am French and it was my first job in Nigeria, a country that speaks English,’’ he recalls of his first job.
His first food – Lasagna
‘‘The first food I cooked then was Lasagna, I made the fresh lasagna sheet myself and then my boss was an Italian and here I was just finishing from school and making fresh pasta for an Italian. The reaction was unimaginable as he was very impressed and gave me a handsome tip that day.’’
Chef Bien is well versed in both local and continental dishes, with an amazing skill in cooking Mexican, Italian, French and American cuisines.
Being a chef, he says is not an easy task as you have to contend with a number of challenges from different angles. ‘‘The challenges of being a chef are so many; you have to make sure that you keep researching for new ideas, accept criticisms and work on then, learning from the best on the field.’’
Nigeria food culture is the best in West Africa
He rates Nigeria food culture as the best in West Africa and expresses optimism that going global with Nigeria food is just a step away. ‘‘It is the best in West Africa and it is going to be over the world,’’ he says, adding that: ‘‘Nigeria cuisine will soon be internationalised.
‘‘It is just a matter of time, it will happen because Nigeria have some of the best chefs in the world that will take it to the next level. So many young and talented chefs are coming up, so we will get there, it is just a matter of time.’’
Egusi is my best Nigeria soup
He says he is in love with Nigeria food, insisting that egusi is his most favourite:‘‘My best Nigeria dish is Egusi because it is the only food that I can eat three times a day or a whole month without complaining.’’ While on the continental level, ‘‘I will say paella is so flavoured and it can be made from left over.’’
Cooking is now an attractive profession
Cooking as a profession, he says is not only on the ascending curve, but rather the food industry as a whole, he says is becoming an attractive industry and very profitable, with many people finding solace in its extensive value chain, which offers a diverse multiplier effects.
The sky is the beginning
For the teeming young and talented populace coming into the profession, ‘‘my advice for them is, before you start the journey ask yourself if this is what you want to do and be honest with your answer then the sky will be your beginning, trust me,’’ he says.
‘‘I said this because everyone wants to be a celebrity chef or just love the way this chef does his things without being sure that is what they want to do,’’ he added.
Government should invest more in tourism
To meet up with the growing colony of chefs in the country, in terms of meaningful employment, his advice is for the government to pay more attention to tourism by investing massively in it. ‘‘Let the government invest more in tourism and hospitality because the more that happens they will create more jobs for chefs because every chef can’t be a business owner.’’
With the way ladies admire and compliment chefs most times especially when they are wowed with the culinary creative and presentations of the chefs, you will think that most of them are ladies’ men or even playboy, but chef Bien quickly denounce this notion, insisting that chefs most times find it difficult to keep a relationship.
He puts attributes this to the number of hours chefs spent in the food laboratory, making it difficult for many of them, including him to nurture a thriving love affair. ‘‘Trust me, chefs are the most difficult people to be in relationships with because we don’t have time for even ourselves and it really takes a lady to understand that.’’
Wrong order for the right person
Chefs Bien admits that cooking blunder comes with the territory as he says that ‘‘even the best chefs have their own share of blunder,’’ as even him has not been spared from it.
He recalls serving the wrong order to the right guest at a time: ‘‘Doing the wrong order for the right person and I quickly have to apologise for the error and then quickly do the right order for the right person.