Tolu Erogbobo is the latest sensation in the Nigerian gourmet scene, famed for creating delectable pastries, cookies and signature dishes for those who crave quality food in Lagos. He is popularly known as Chef Eros, named after the Greek god of love. His love for food means the 28-year-old chef counts billionaire tycoons Mike Adenuga and Aliko Dangote, as well as international stars like Lauren Hill, among his clients. It has also led to him being labelled as the next big thing to watch by CNN.
For Erogbobo it is surreal; he never planned to become a chef.
“When I started business I didn’t want to be a chef, I just wanted to be a restaurateur. I loved the restaurant business; I had worked on a few restaurant projects in my younger days. In the UK I worked with Oceania (Hotels )Group where they had set up a few restaurants in my university and just seeing the delivery of the equipment, putting them in place, making them work and designing a place to make it feel nice, was so exciting for me,” says Erogbobo, the Founder of Cookie Jar, a gourmet bakery.
That was before Erogbobo had an unlikely experience in the kitchen.
“All of that switched in a year of me finding my true love, which is food. I found that through chicken; just seasoning chicken, putting the spices together, and then different cooking processes giving you different textures. I found the love for food in university then I combined that with the love for interior spaces, which is what drove the passion for the restaurant.”
After graduating in 2008 with a business degree from the University of Wolverhampton, in England, Erogbobo moved back to Nigeria with the plan to help his mother set up a restaurant.
It cost N60 million ($190,000) to start the first restaurant. Erogbobo was 21 years old at the time. His mother and sister put up a significant amount of the start-up capital.
“The funds for the restaurant were raised predominantly by my mother who sold one of her properties to invest. My sister supported with some her saving and so did I,” he says.
Erogbobo knew that location was key, however all the best locations in town came at a steep price. As luck would have it, he found a restaurant in Victoria Island whose owner was looking to sell and agreed to let the cash-strapped Erogbobo pay in monthly instalments.
“The owner said to me he didn’t want to sell the restaurant anymore because I didn’t have the money to buy it all at once, so he offered to be partners instead. So I came in, used the money I had to revamp the place from just a café to a café restaurant and that is how the journey actually started,” says Erogbobo.
The restaurant later failed because Erogbobo did not keep his eye on the numbers, according to the young entrepreneur. After a brief stint in real estate and energy, the calling of the kitchen could no longer be ignored.
“I started having dreams about cookies and they continued every other night. They were so vivid and I would wake up sometimes and I would be so emotional. In 2012, I got all the ingredients needed, went online, found the recipe I wanted and came back to bake. The first batch of cookies I made fell flat but they tasted really good. I went back and did more homework and I tried it out again, and it worked out. I went downstairs and gave my friends some to try and they all loved it. One of my friends offered to pay me and I didn’t know how much to charge so I said N500 ($1.50) per cookie and he didn’t object, so he bought four.”
Erogbobo realized he was onto something and needed to spread the word quickly.
“I started baking everyday and started posting pictures on [messaging app] BBM and I found out that BBM was working. So every time I would go out, I would get a lot of BBM contacts because I wanted them to see my updates and I used to update like every five minutes. It was annoying for a lot of people because you were always seeing me on your timeline but the moment you think of nibbling on something, the first thing you think of is me,” says Erogbobo.
Business soon took off. Aptly for someone called Chef Eros, Valentine’s Day came and Erogbobo sold over $2,500 worth of cookies over the love season and he has been on a trajectory ever since. The company is in its third year and currently turns over N150 million ($480,000) per year according to Erogbobo. The growth has been fast with three kitchens opened in Lagos, including Glasshouse Catering, which provides cocktail-style catering for events; Cookie Jar, which is the bakery and Eros and Gourmet, the speciality savoury dish brand.
As if his success wasn’t remarkable enough, this year Erogbobo was recruited by Food Revolution, the campaign started by culinary master Jamie Oliver. The celebrity chef launched the program to encourage people from all over the world to adopt a healthy eating lifestyle and push their own government to fight diet related diseases.
Joining the Food Revolution was a dream come true for Erogbobo. This year, he is gearing up to open a new catering service offering a 24-hour healthy breakfast menu for his clients.
“The Food Revolution is all about changing the way people eat, buy, grow, and what people understand about food. My global goal is zero hunger and for the next 15 years I aim to help end hunger in Africa. To do that we have to achieve sustainable agriculture, achieve improved nutrition and improved food security,” says Erogbobo.
With Erogbobo’s passion for food, don’t bet against him.