When Yewande Komolafe cooks, she summons memories from growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. She also pulls from her own culinary improvisations and experiences as an immigrant chef. Because recipes were rarely written down in her family, she remembers watching diligently and taking mental notes as her mom or aunties prepared dishes like sweet plantains, stewed chicken, and jollof rice. Food has always connected Yewande to her present and past. At 16, she moved from Lagos, Nigeria to the United States for college. She unexpectedly lost her immigration status and became undocumented. But nothing stopped her from thriving as she made her way in kitchens throughout the country—places like Momofuku Milk Bar in New York and Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta. Prestigious food entities such as Saveur, New York Times, James Beard Foundation, Bon Appétit have published hundreds of recipes developed, styled, or tested by Yewande.
Two years ago, however, Yewande was yearning to explore her Nigerian identity (she hadn’t been back to her home country in nearly 20 years) as well as the global narratives of fellow immigrants. She asked herself, “What does it mean to be a Nigerian and to have lived in the US for 20 years?” Because cooking and savoring meals engages all of the senses: taste, smell, touch, feel, and sight, Yewande knew the answers laid in bringing people together through food. Community, conversation, and cuisine soon became the key ingredients behind Yewande’s monthly dinner series called “My Immigrant Food Is…” While gathering around her dinner table in Brooklyn, Yewande and her guests explore their childhood roots, family histories, and how the meals their mothers or grandmothers cooked have evolved with time and changing environments.
Can you tell me more about your process and any challenges you faced while creating and hosting “My Immigrant Food Is…”?
The series takes place once a month, mostly out of my home in Brooklyn with the occasional off-site dinner. I work very closely with my friend and colleague Yemi Amu who runs Oko Farms an aquaponics farm based in Brooklyn. Yemi grows most of the greens and some vegetables used for the dinner and also moderates the evening’s conversation. I plan a menu around ingredients in season, what she has, and dishes from home I may have a hankering for. It can be a challenge sometimes using local and seasonal ingredients while trying to figure out how to put a Nigerian spin on a dish, but that’s part of the joy of creating. Part of the immigrant experience is adapting to one’s new environment. Cooking is one way to do that.
How have folks within your immigrant community and beyond responded to your dinner series?
For a lot of my guests, it is their first introduction to Nigerian cuisine and they respond with mostly excitement and curiosity. Some guests draw similarities in flavour profiles and ingredients between their immigrant cuisine and my food. It is always great to find common ground, which becomes a great conversation starter. The question of authenticity has come up quite a bit from both my Nigerian and non Nigerian guests. My cooking is a culmination of my experience of working in the food industry, living away from Nigeria for two decades, and my travels, so all very non-traditional. My culinary style is authentic to my experience and I’ve found that to be enough.
You say that the foundation for you interest in food was laid before you were born and that coming together around food is incredibly important in your family. Can you describe how your dedication to your foodways and your ancestry informs your work as a chef, recipe developer, and food stylist?
I got to a point in my immigration story where I could not go back to Nigeria. It took me awhile to process what it means to make a home in a new country while feeling cut off and disconnected from the old, but not entirely at ease in the new. My work in food is tangible and has always grounded me, so I put this mix of feelings into exploring my family’s foodways. In exploring this, I was able to document and share recipes that existed mostly in my memory, or in a phone conversation with my mom. I also learned that women on both sides of family have a shared history of travel and have sometimes settled far from home. They all nurtured an intimate relationship with food and used it as a connective pathway to their community. I come from a long line of women who ran restaurants, bakeries, hosted large format dinners in their homes, etc. My mom also worked as a recipe developer. Connecting these stories has been a real confidence boost for me, it nourishes my soul and encourages the passion I have for my work.
How does your profession as a recipe tester allow you to reclaim power and decolonize the food you cook?
My profession allows me to create through my development work, and edit and refine through my testing work. The goals of each are very different. Testing is focused on precision - there are no dashes of salt in a test kitchen. Everything has to be weighed and measured, and replicated in a home kitchen. The execution required of restaurant cooking is a different kind of skill - it’s own kind of genius. I think I’ve found a space that suits dual concerns of mine - the creative and precise. I belong to the food community as an immigrant, an African, a Nigerian, a Black woman. There have been people like me in the food community for as long as there’s been food. The food is decolonized. The stories that are highlighted about it are not.
I loved reading your Munchies piece “I Was an Undocumented Restaurant Worker.” You mention that the food community has done better than most industries in acknowledging its significant dependence on immigrants and undocumented labor. Why do you think that is?
I was thinking of immigration in terms of labour. A large percentage of the labour force in the food and agricultural industry is occupied by people with relatively recent immigrant backgrounds. This industry has, and continues to provide a range of opportunities for both documented and undocumented immigrants.
How do you think food media can do better overall?
We owe it to the ourselves and the society we are a part of to tell an honest story, that is inclusive of the very real people that make up our communities. Anything short of that is dishonest and silences important voices. This silencing does us all a disservice.
Any upcoming projects you're excited to share?
My company Four Salt Spoons was registered this year. It is an independent test kitchen where I work on recipe development and with a small team on testing for cookbooks, online and print publications. The La Cocina Cookbook, which I worked on, comes out in Spring 2019 and I am so excited to see the recipes and stories of the incredible entrepreneurs shine out in the world. I currently have two ongoing cookbook testing and development projects, and recently started working on recipes with The New York Times. It has been a thrilling experience to learn and grow with the variety of culinary platforms that I work with.
Shameless plug - What’s your favorite way to use turmeric?
I love the brilliance of the Diaspora Co. turmeric, the fragrance and the intense colour! I like to use it in vinaigrettes with other aromatics such as ginger, lemongrass or chilis which i then spoon generously over a salad, roast veggies, seafood or meats. I also loved the Turmeric Tonic Tea from the Diaspora Co. “Cooking With Gold” zine (that we did the recipe testing for!). I make the "fiery and strong" version and keep a jar in my fridge for an immunity boost when I need it.