WRT featured Chef Renee Chukwuemeka sometime back. We said she was from 3 generations of great cooks and also mentioned that she anchored a tv show. What we didn’t say is that she has also been a successful model and an actor. Renee Chukwuemeka was born here in Nigeria about 25 + years ago, an only child from her mum, but has other siblings from her dad. She was a talkative child, who got everyone doting on her; she had her primary school and secondary school education in Lagos, Nigeria. She wanted to study mass communication at the University, but her mum thought being a lawyer would suit her so much because she talks a lot. Renee didn’t get a chance study law though, she got philosophy at the university of Lagos. She didn’t want to study philosophy, so she left in her second year and went to the USA.
“I didn’t go to school cos I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do; I knew I wanted to do anything related to show business” she says. Upon her return back to Nigeria, a friend used her as the lead on a pilot for a Tv show. The show never aired though, but since the show was presented to Tajudeen Adepetu of SoundCity and he liked her performance, she got a job working with Souncity/Spice Tv as a presenter. We sat down with this 25+ year old, eclectic young woman/wife at Browns cafe where she is the executive chef.
Renee: The Presenter
I started with SoundCity/Spice Tv as a presenter for fashion, beauty & lifestyle shows. I enjoyed it immensely, met a lot of people. But I didn’t get the mileage that I thought it would give me. So if you asked people about Seun, the presenter…they’d fire blanks. The passion I had for the job kept me focused though and I met a lot of people that are now my friends…I didn’t get the mileage, I got loads of important friends though.
The mileage had its importance, i’ll give you a scenario. We were at Banky W’s video shoot for his song “Lagos Party” and it got to a scene where they wanted to feature Tv presenters and I stepped forward with the rest of the presenters. And the person calling out, a friend said to me “oh no, we’ll call you when it’s time for the crowd shot” I felt so bad and just left. Like I had put in so much but I didn’t have the respect or recognition as a Tv presenter
WRT: Laughs* That must have hurt. Wait, we are…a little curious. If you are 25 +, it means you got married at like 21….22. Why? That was a pretty young age.
I got married at 21, we had been seeing each other for…laughs* for 5 years before then. We were high school sweethearts.
WRT: You’re Yoruba, he is Ibo and you got married at 21. I’m seeing a whole country of resistance. How did you swing it?
There was no resistance whatsoever. If anything, when we announced that we wanted to get married, both families were like “about time already, you two!”
WRT: Both families?
WRT: They are Lagos families…not Yoruba or Ibo. Lagosians, that’s a tribe on its own…
Laughs* they are. They are just like these two know what they want…go ahead. And 5 years from then, we are still together.
WRT: You speak Ibo?
WRT: Your husband speaks Ibo
Nope…our children are in trouble when it comes to speaking Ibo. laughs*
Renee: The model
When I was a model, i didn’t like it much. I like to be a force for change, if I cant be that force, I get really angry and frustrated and I go on my way and find something else I can change…
WRT: Isn’t that kinda defeatist? Like you cant change stuff, so you just leave…?
Well, there are some things that are wayyyy too saturated and as one person, you cannot do anything. And you cannot find anyone to marry your vision/cause. When I was a model, I did like 2 jobs, a Visafone ad and an FCMB ad. A lotta people do not even know it was me on the FCMB ad. You remember their “My Bank and I” campaign, I was the girl with my ears closed, smile on my face. I had fun on that shoot, we shot it with Kelechi Amadi-Obi. It was my first job as a model and it was a big job. It was everywhere.
Modeling in Nigeria is not what it should be. I feel bad for the girls who are models now, I hope the Oluchis and the Agbanis, knowing what they went through, can actually do something…I commend Elohor of Elite Models. From what I see, I think she is doing a good job, giving these girls a chance and not letting any man/vampire (who couldn’t get girls in high school/uni” then decides to sleep with very girl who comes his way because he is a big shot in one Ad’ Agency) touch them. Sighs* I still have a passion for modeling.
WRT: So, why did you quit?
I quit modeling cos I left Nigeria and then…erm, I got fat. laughs*
WRT: That’s the politically correct answer…
Laughs* well, when you are turned into an object, a sex object. Told to take off your jacket, turn around, jump up and down….
WRT: Maybe they wanna see if you are fit…they wanna give you an Adidas ad’ job
Laughs* Not when they have shown you the brief and it has nothing to do with Adidas or Sports.
WRT: Laughs* Did the modeling transition you into Renee the actor?
I’m not an actor…I just did one movie. Just one.
WRT: Which makes you an actor…a big role in a big movie.
Oh well, laughs*
WRT: So, how did you land that role? (She played “Sumbo” in Funke Akindele’s “The return of Jenifa”)
Like I said, even though working at Soundcity didn’t give me the mileage that I thought it would, I met a lot of people, Funke Akindele was one of them. She came on a show and I approached her. I had seen her once or twice at UniLag and loved her character, Bisi from “I need to Know”. I loved the Jenifa, the movie. We became friends and she reached out, saying she was about to shoot a movie, and we were going top dance a lot in the movie; the cast was supposed to be bigger than it was finally was. It took two years, from conversation to full production.
She says to me….”you are going to leave your husband’s house for two weeks for the shoot” and I was like “two weeks!!?” So, I went to my husband, Ibo man, and said “darling…” He said “No”. I begged and he let me go. We got to the location and it was fun. Denrele, Eldee, people I knew from the entertainment industry were all there. The role that I played was an easy one…it was like she wrote the role for me, just to fit me. She was supposed to give me another role, which wasn’t as big as the one I played.
Renee: The Chef
While at Soundcity/Spice Tv, I had a cooking show called Sugar & Spice, and on the show i’d go and visit chefs in their restaurants, hotels and they’d cook something for me, get to know them. I always loved to cook, cooking is me. Even though I was pampered and spoilt silly as a child, my mum was always like “you can’t NOT know how to cook; what happens when you go to your husband’s house” It was a tantrum at first, then I started loving it. My fondest memories are from saturdays when my grand mum, my mum and I would be in the kitchen making “moi moi”. When I got older all i could do was wish we could do that, but we lost my grandma.
When I had the cooking show, I noticed all the chefs were either Lebanese or Chinese or Indonesians or French or German. You’d see these people and then see a Cotonou person as the sous-chef. A sous-chef is the assistant chef, the person next to the head/executive chef. And I kept thinking, we are in Nigeria and we don’t even have nigerians as sous-chefs. So, I went online, did my research, found Le Cordon Bleu; since I was used to and had family in the United States, I opted to study in the states. I chose Houston, texas though cos I wanted a place where I could focus, away from family, for one full year.
WRT: One full year? and this was cool with your husband?
Yes, it was…
WRT: Is your husband even Nigerian?
Yes, he is Nigerian. laughs* Just a very supportive Nigerian husband. I don’t think I would have been able to achieve all the things I have, if he didn’t support me. I have a very strong, supportive husband and I am extremely grateful for that.
WRT: You’re at Brown’s Cafe now, did you start with them immediately you came back?
No. When you are done, in my school, you go for “externship” . We have a restaurant in the school and you do like 6 weeks there before your externship (waitressing, front of house, back of house, kitchen, the whole works). I decided to come to Nigeria for my externship. My first externship site was Protea, Ikeja GRA. I was gonna do my whole 12 weeks at Protea, but I changed my mind cos I wasn’t learning anything; for some reason, the executive chef wasn’t cooking much, so….I went to VCP Hotel in Victoria Island. I had my remaining 6 weeks there and it was great. I learnt a lot about adapting to the Nigerian market of costing, menu creation, all the things I needed to learn in the supply chain, how it worked, learning to check all your produce cos suppliers can try to cheat you.
The chef that I worked with there knew the owner of Browns cafe and he was the one that referred me. I had just worked with him for like 2 weeks and he was like “Browns Cafe is searching for a chef, preferably female and i know you’ll do great there”. This blew my mind, I mean I manage 5 kitchens and 16 cooks.
WRT: Oh wow! All of these, the learning, and then working…is there no school that could have prepared you like that, in Nigeria?
…that would teach me what I wanna know? I don’t think there is, there are hospitality management schools. There’s a lot of that.
WRT: But we have great food as a country. Isn’t there something that can be done to get schools like these into the country?
Well, first of all, the people who are going to teach these things have to go and train for it…they need to have the passion and the school owners have to be ready to pay them well.
Renee: The wife
WRT: How do you balance work and family life
I have the most supportive husband ever. We close here by 10pm and he comes, waits till I am done, and takes me home. But weekends, I try to stay at home. I think it helps that he is also a creative person. He is proud of me and wants to see me go from grace to grace.
WRT: What’s next? Seun the Pilot?
Laughs* You know what, I’ll start talking to a few friends, who are pilots and I’ll work on that…
WRT: How many languages do you speak? we watch all these western movies and the chefs can speak romantic languages
I speak a little bit of French, just enough to flag down a cab… laughs* more Spanish than french though….
WRT: For Renee the chef, what’s next? Owning your own chain of restaurants?
No. Not in the immediate future. I was even advised not to rush into it. Being a chef is one thing, running a business as a chef is another thing. As Nigerian chefs in Nigeria, we do not get the respect we would get in say….the United States. Even your skin color and mother tongue don’t put you at an advantage. There’s this thing called the Michellin Stars, the Oscars of cooking. If you don’t want a Michellin star as a chef, its like an actor not interested in winning an oscar. Maybe a Michelin Star….
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