Aminu Lawal Dalhatu is an executive chef. Eighteen years ago, he went to New York to study, but unknown to him, his calling was in the restaurant business. In this interview, he shares how he rose to become an executive chef from dishwashing, his challenges, among others. Excerpts
Daily Trust: How did you become a chef?
Aminu Lawal Dalhatu: I lived in New York for 18 years because I went there to study and while there, I did different jobs. I engaged in lots of odd jobs; delivery and others, before I came across the kitchen. I started as a dishwasher before I worked my way up to becoming a chef.
DT: What course did you study while in school?
Dalhatu: I studied Computer Science. Cooking was totally not what I had planned to do with my life. It was something that came across me, and I found passion in it.
DT: So far, have you encountered any challenges?
Dalhatu: Yes, there have been lots of challenges since it is something I stumbled on and not a career I planned for myself. It was a thing that came out of the blues. There were challenges because I had to virtually learn everything from the start, I learned on the job. I had to learn kitchen manners and how to be hygienic; how to cook, how to learn recipe and how to develop flavours, everything was a challenge. However, it was great because it is something that I now enjoy doing.
DT: How has your cooking been received in Nigeria?
Dalhatu: The reception by Nigerians has been wonderful and incredible. My job has served as an eye opener to lots of people. There are things that I do and felt normal but in Nigeria, a man being a chef is not common. The compliment and reception I’ve received has been wonderful. Some people are eager to learn new things from me.
DT: How many years have you been in the business?
Dalhatu: I have been in the kitchen for seven to eight years but I started as a dishwasher. I have been prep, a sous-chef, an executive sous-chef, a chef, an executive chef. But, I have been a chef for about four years. Currently, I am an executive chef, so I can cook anywhere. I have written a few menus and also served in many restaurants, including in New York. I can cook pretty much anything, anywhere.
DT: Do you have your own restaurant?
Dalhatu: Not yet, but I own a catering company called Hala Spice Kitchen. It is based in Kano for now. That is what I am working on right now. In Hala Spice Kitchen, we do office meals, but it is not a restaurant where you will come and eat, it is like a delivery system, we make delivery to offices, call meal, and catering services for weddings, seminar, events, and meetings.
DT: How many staff do you have?
Dalhatu: I have about 10 to 15 staff working with me. The kitchen is new; it has been around for two years and looking to grow from there to the point of opening a restaurant. For now, we are working on gradually.
DT: How much capital does one need to start a restaurant?
Dalhatu: Here in Nigeria, it is something I am working on because I have only been back a few months but I have been telling people that you don’t need to have millions of naira to get started. It is something you can do from the basics.
If you start small, it will be easier for you to control the business. The learning experience and hard work will allow you to do lots of stuff by yourself, so that when the business grows bigger, you will be able to tell your staff what you want to get done (and how) because you have done it yourself.
But if you start big, there are things you will have to delegate. If you have no knowledge on how to do it, they will do it their own way. And if they do it their way, the outcome may not be how you want it. So, you can start small with a small kitchen of two to three staff in front of a house. It does not have to be with 25 tables. Four tables will be easier for you to control.
So honestly, I cannot give you figures on how much to start with but it is important for people to understand that starting small is not a bad thing. You can start with something you can lay your hands on, it will be a lot easier for you at the moment, and when the business grows, it will be easier for you to explain what you want done – setting up a system that will work when you are not there.
DT: What words of encouragement do you have for young men who would want to start such a business in an environment like Nigeria?
Dalhatu: I will urge them to stay on top of everything because hands on is very important. It is not good for you to open up a business and go into the office to sit, cross your legs and expect people to do things for you because you put money in it. It is something you really have to be there, work more than everybody, be in the office before everyone, and leave after everybody, especially at the very beginning.
You should know how the place is being swept, how everything is being cleaned, how every food is being served – you have to taste it. You have to witness everything, and make sure you say anything you don’t like. Do not be afraid to say the obvious.
For instance, if someone sweeps and then forgets to sweep behind the fridge, which is obvious, you have to say it. Do not be shy or afraid because that is the foundation of starting up a business, being hands on. That is something that will grow into your employees and they will be able to pick up your system, energy, hard work, and attitude. Before you know it, they will imbibe it and in the future when the business grows big and you have too much to handle, they would know how to handle it.