Celebrity chef, Gbubemi Fregene, who is popularly known as Chef Fregz, speaks on his love for food and catering in Nigeria with KORE OGIDAN
Being a private company, how has the government been able to help grow your business?
I can’t say the government has in any way or form helped me grow my business. I’ve always done that myself.
The food industry is growing rapidly with the emergence of new ideas and caterers. What do you do differently to maintain your spot at the top?
To remain at the top, I’m personally learning all over again and looking to learn how to properly run a business. I’m also trying to discover what the bigger circle and mass market hasn’t tried and I just keep refining it. For example, some brands are heavily involved in driving high advert traffic to sell more of their products. That’s a strategy. For me, I’m trying to find ways to reinvent and work on newer projects. I’m also researching natural ways to expand my brand. Maybe collaborating with more brands across the food industry and beyond, doing more jobs as an influencer and working more with other chefs will work. Also, I believe that by following international works of people I haven’t even met, I’ll be able to learn more. Not only these, but I’m also willing to take courses to improve myself.
What stirred your interest in food making?
The question should be, “Why not food?” Food is something I was fascinated by so I just wanted to find out all I could about it and learn how to cook.
How lucrative is the business and how much traffic do you get?
The food business is very lucrative. Like any business, it has potential. Even in a business where you are making N100m a year, sometimes it is still not enough because your profit margin needs to grow as a business. Right now, I’m at a level where there is still more to be done but we are growing financially. Like in any venture, you have to get your business mix right so that you are truly a success story.
What obstacles did you encounter when you first got into the business and how would you compare them to those of now?
The initial challenges I faced when I started was getting customers. I used to work from my grandfather’s house and that was challenging. Trying to build it up from the ground was challenging and I was working with the little I had. In fact, when I initially began, I used to borrow equipment. I also borrowed peoples’ vehicles but gradually, I did so many jobs and as opportunities came, I began buying my own apparatus and even renting my own space. I also faced what I think was just the Nigerian ‘atmosphere’. I think it is everywhere in the world but in Nigeria, it is very peculiar. Some days, you have it really favourable and on other days, it gets really tough.
Aside from these, I doubt I’ve particularly faced any unusual challenge. I’ve been able to overcome the challenges because consistency is something I’m always keen on.
How has the economy impacted the growth of your business?
I think I was fortunate because what I did was different. The economy is constantly changing and it is the people who have money who want to spend it but we want their money to go a long way. So, I have also had to be smart, but I think when the dollar really went high, it caused some issues but we still did well. People would always want to eat.
Being a married chef, do you prepare food for your wife or is it still a wife’s place in the kitchen to make food for her husband?
I usually don’t like cooking at home because I cook at work. People think I actually cook delicacies at home but that is not so. These days, I actually stay very healthy and eat a lot of fresh fruits. I cook at home when I want to, but I am saying that since I cook at work, I might not really decide to cook when I get home. Because I have a natural flair for cooking, I would make something from time to time. My wife cooks also and there’s no debate on who should cook.
How different was your experience cooking in France compared to cooking in Nigeria?
They are two different ball games. France was a different culture and it had a more organised system. Theirs is a bigger culture of going out to eat. In Nigeria, we like to go out to have a nice time not necessarily eat, so our idea of dining is eating homemade food. The population of those who go out to eat in Nigeria is very low. For the average Nigerian, going out to eat a good meal is usually at fast food outlets. We don’t have a formal restaurant-going culture.
Why did you decide to cater to Nigerians?
I didn’t decide to come back to Nigeria. Relocating happened by accident as I was meant to stay back in Paris and move to London (UK), then Miami (US). I wanted to travel in that manner but something happened that brought me back. When I did, I soon ran out of money and there was no one to fund my bills. So out of boredom, I catered at a friend’s party and that was how I became very popular.
What is your favourite meal to cook?
I don’t have a favourite meal to cook. However, one of my favourite meals to cook right now is coconut beans and I cook it particularly for my aunt.
How often do you get patronage from Nigerians, considering your cuisines are different from what the average Nigerian is used to?
Sometimes, you have to be proactive and not rely on luck. At the same time, what can you do on your own when you are a private chef? You have to invite people to try your food and all of the sorts. I have been very fortunate where a lot of people credit my work just by trying me. I was fresh and new to them and they liked it and recommended me. Since the brand is being more established, we are working to be more proactive.
Also, because we play with Nigerian flavours, patronage is easier. With us, some things are straight-forward and some things are updated. Also, some of our core clients don’t want Nigerian food. We have meal infusions and play with Asian flavours. When our clients want fine dining, we play with non-Nigerian flavours. We basically focus on what our clients and audience want.
How sophisticated would you say the average Nigerian’s food palate is?
The average Nigerian palate wants flavour; they don’t particularly care what it is. They just want it to taste delicious. That’s how I can explain it. Nigerians also like things that look familiar. They are not looking for rare-done meat, for instance. If it’s cooked very well and the flavour is really developed, they are fine. Nigerians don’t like food just because of pepper. It’s the deep flavour that appeals to them, and that’s why they like Asian food– because it shares the same heart as Nigerian food. Nigerian food is very layered when it comes to flavour.
Is it true that food is the way to a man’s heart?
I won’t say so. Men like food but for someone like me, food isn’t at the top of my want list. In fact, I have a terrible eating schedule and often, people have to remind me that I haven’t eaten. I believe that the way to an average guy’s heart is not even through food. I believe the average guy wants to eat and be filled to survive, not necessarily to be impressed. If you give a man all the food you want to but make him feel small, you won’t impress him.
Aside from cooking, what do you do?
I’m working on something related to training (teaching cooking) because there is a very high demand for it but I’m not particularly sure I’m ready to teach. In my spare time, I like to write and I’m involved in photography. I also enjoy going to the gym.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
I’d say the chicken; because the chicken would have laid the egg. The chicken came with God creating the earth, or the big bang, or whatever you believe.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Benin City, Edo State, with my parents and sister. I had my elementary education in Benin City, and went to Olashore Secondary School, Iloko-Ijesa, Osun State, for my secondary education. I graduated from Covenant University with a Bachelor in Industrial Relations and Human Management.
How would you describe your style?
I wear a lot of Adeshola Balogun clothes. I always wear a lot of navy blue outfits and a pair of very nice slippers. I am actually going to evolve soon and begin to wear all black. I also love wearing shorts, t-shirts and sneakers.