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Alumni Stories: Aji Akokomi and Akoko

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Alumni Stories: Aji Akokomi and Akoko

Former IT project professional Aji Akokomi opened his innovative West African restaurant Akoko in Fitzrovia in central London in October 2020. In its first year, Akoko made it into the National Restaurant Awards Top 100. Here, the first-time restaurateur explains how Akoko came into being and why he chose to study at Leiths before taking the plunge.

You worked in IT before. How did you end up enrolling at Leiths?

“When I began thinking of opening a West African restaurant in London, I was still working in an office environment. I knew I needed in-depth knowledge of everything food so I researched the best culinary school in London, saw the great reviews of Leiths, and enrolled on the ten-week Essential Cooking Certificate. I’d quickly go after work in the evenings and to some Saturday lectures which I really enjoyed. I loved cooking and have always cooked at home. My mum back home in Nigeria has a bakery, and we entertained a lot as I do now with my family in London. It’s not just normal cooking! I would prep days in advance, choose the plates, match with wine. To do the same in a restaurant, I needed to understand what proper cooking looks like so that’s why I thought going to school was important. I can’t wait to catch up with my classmates again. We used to talk about what we were going to do next and when I told them I was going to open a West African restaurant, most of them didn’t see it happening!”

What is your vision for Akoko?

“I wanted to open a West African inspired restaurant, where I would be able to showcase the flavours, the techniques and also the ingredients of West African food. To create somewhere people can come and experience a menu they’ve never experienced before, with some traditional cooking and also some innovative techniques and flavours. We work with exceptional farmers in the UK and with spices and grains from Africa. I wanted everything to be quite organic; the plates are handmade; the walls are clay, the music’s West African. It pretty much feels and looks a quiet village in West Africa. I wanted that diversity in the kitchen and the dining room, so myself and chefs from all over the world coming together to create this West African food. It’s so beautiful, so diverse. We want to continue striving for accolades. Of course I would be lying if I said I didn’t want a Michelin star.”

What kind of food can guests expect to find at Akoko?

“Jollof rice will always be on the menu. Jollof rice is the most iconic dish of West Africa. It’s a dish that brings West Africans and the West African diaspora together; it’s one we all have in common. At Akoko, ours is made to a family recipe, a recipe given from generation to generation. The only twist is the removal of Maggi [store-bought bouillon, introduced to Africa in the 1950s and now prevalent in West Africa]. At Akoko we make our concentrated bouillon with chicken, beef, dried mushrooms and fermented seeds. There are other dishes we’ve done a lot innovations on but we wanted that one was traditional as possible. The suya barbecued langoustines are another favourite dish, also a beautiful dessert made of prekese, a West African dried fruit.

As the owner and the creator of the concept, how involved are you in the food at Akoko?

“I did a lot of development work and am still involved in development when the restaurant is closed. I work on the prep and on the core flavours, the bouillons, the stocks, the base of the recipes. I work with the executive head chef to create recipes to trial and test. I am very academic in my approach to things. I collect recipes from aunties, my mum, and relatives and friends back home, and have loads of books – the Leiths book is so useful! It’s pretty much the foundation. I love writing recipes! Hopefully in future I will write a cookbook tested for professional chefs working in Michelin kitchens.”

Akoko.co.uk

Author: Hilary Armstrong

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