CHEF ETTE ASSAM: Grill Master Extraordinaire
Words by- Josephine Agbonkhese
Chief Executive Officer of 8tte’s Barbeque and Cocktail, Chef Ette Assam needs almost no introduction. The celebrity pitmaster who delved into the world of grilled meals 22 years ago as an undergraduate of Linguistics at the University of Calabar, has catered to the creme de la creme of both the Nigerian and international society, as well as high profile events.
A fellow of the American Barbecue Association and an expert rotisseur, he was also featured as a celebrity guest in the Season 4 and 7 editions of Big Brother Nigeria, BBN, and was a judge on the recently concluded Street Foodz Naija reality TV show.
The multiple award-winning chef who is currently working on his debut work as an author, shares with Allure his journey into the grill world, breakthrough moments, lows and dreams as he sets up in the city of Lagos after decades of operating from Calabar in Cross River State.
Was grilling in any way part of your childhood ambition?
I came into this industry in 2001; that was 22 years ago, while still in school. Apparently, I just wanted to be a field person; maybe get a job in an office or in entertainment. But as time went on, everything was like on a standstill because we had a long strike like the one going on now. The person in whose house my friends and I used to converge in Lagos had an elder brother who, in a quest to empower me financially, told me he would like to teach me how to make chicken and chips. He said he started doing chicken and chips while at the University of Ibadan and began making enough money to the extent that he bought a car, power bike, an apartment off campus, and also started sending money home to his parents.
He eventually taught me and I started grilling at parties when I got back to school. I had a space arrangement with my landlord and started grilling at weekends too, in front of my hostel which was usually very busy.
I started this business with N2,500 (that was the price of the carton of chicken I first bought) and I’ve never worked for anyone ever since. Then, you find about 50 to 60 pieces in a carton and I was selling each for N250. I was making five times my capital.
What was your first grilling experience like and, looking back, what do you find awkward about it?
My first grilling experience was at the NYSC Camp in Ipaja in Lagos. The man who introduced me to the business set up a spot there and I grilled with him for three weeks before school strike got called off and I had to return to school. What I found awkward about it was that I had to learn to turn meats with my bare hands to the extent that my fingers became numb.
Aside the the money I was paid, he gifted me the apron I worked with and an old fork, and blessed me.
What would you consider your breakthrough moment?
That should be my first major job.
One of those coming to my hostel was Personal Assistant to the Attorney General of Cross River State. He bought and gave some of my meats to his boss, the Attorney General, who liked it.
Exactly six months from when I started, I got a notice to come see the Attorney General.
That was during Obasanjo’s regime. He (the president) was coming to open Obudu Cattle Ranch and I was to cater for him and all the Senators and dignitaries coming to the after-party which was preferred as a grill party. I was also going to grill for him at the Executive Lounge. That was how I did my first major job without any staff.
From then onward, I started making a lot of money so much that I stopped coming to Lagos because I was wanted at different parties across the state. I was grilling for top government functionaries at their events. I became so successful that when it was time to go for NYSC, I was advised by one of my mentors, my landlord precisely, to opt for exemption. So, I took an exemption letter and went to horn my grilling skills. Barbecue wasn’t a big thing in Nigeria back then, so, I started taking online classes and getting certifications. I also got a degree as a Pitmaster.
As a fellow of the American Barbecue Association, would you say the industry here is as organised as it is in America?
We’ve not even tapped into the industry yet; everybody is just doing their thing— the regular thing they call Asun. It’s now people are beginning to understand why people eat medium rare, blue rare, well done, etc. A lot of people don’t even know temperature. They don’t know what temperature is needed for certain kinds of meat or when to stop cooking and allow the meat to ‘rest’. When you watch Food Network, you will notice they open cold water to stop the cooking, and then the food still continues to cook for a while after that.
What do you wish weren’t lacking in the industry here in Nigeria and how can that be addressed?
We lack so much. You know, abroad, it’s easier because they have ranches. They’re people who deal on meats. Right now in Nigeria, there aren’t even enough chicken to go round the country. So, basically, we are not eating organic foods. We have to import cartoned chickens and turkeys because we don’t have enough farms or ranches. Their meat abroad is quite different from ours because we do the nomadic setting kind of rearing while they do ranches. So, they breed the kinds of meat they want; softer and succulent. Meanwhile, ours walk from Kano to Lagos and all their bodies become very hard. There’s too much that we haven’t tapped into. If you look at KFC for example, I’m sure the company has a farm of its own and is not using our farmers. So, our farmers are not growing. This is because they understand chicken and know the kind or range of chicken they want, or how many months old chicken they want; but we don’t have that kind of farmers here who can supply the amount and type of chicken in demand. It’s a big market that people have not even tapped into.
You’ve catered to high profile events and international stars like Akon, Fat Joe, Keisha Cole, Eric Bernett, Kirk Franklin, and more; which of these was most challenging?
I think the one I did for the Commissioner of Health in Calabar many years ago. Apparently, we didn’t know from where kerosene entered the chicken. It was nice and everyone was enjoying it but it tasted of kerosene. It was my most embarrassing moment because that was an event being organised by a Commissioner of Health.
Tell us about your debut book ‘Meet and Grill’…
It’s a book that has African, Asian and American fusion. I named it Meat and Grill with Chef 8tte because it’s going to end up as a TV show. I will go to different countries in Africa and across the world, meet with people and we will grill together. I will show them my own technique while they also show me theirs. That is what will give birth to the book eventually. It will be like a collection of my voyage all over Africa and the world.
What has been the most memorable part of your career so far?
When I cooked for Akon, Fat Joe, Wyclef Jean, Davido, Obasanjo, Peter Obi, Donald Duke, Liyel Imoke and many more. My memorable moment was however cooking for Akon because it was Akon that opened my perspective and gateway. Then the one that made me global, BBNaija Season 4. That brought me more audience.
What keeps you passionate about your work?
You know, a lot of people wondered why I haven’t worked in paid employment in 21 years but I look at them and also wonder. The business is wide. I’ve grilled everything except human being. It’s an industry you wake up each day and see new things happening. The job is never boring too; there are a lot of things you can do. I think these keep me passionate.
Which ingredient, technique, or tool could you never do without when grilling?
One tool I will never do without is my barbecue fork. My barbecue fork can suffice for a lot of things. I was however first taught by the man who first trained me to use my hands in case I find myself without a fork and still has to grill.
For ingredient, I can’t do without black pepper.
If you could share one grilling tip with your fans, what would it be?
Never mix cooked food with raw food: that’s cross contamination. You see people add fresh meats around already grilled meat that’s still on fire. That’s a no-no. People can get poisoned that way.
How do you spend your time when not grilling?
When not grilling, I like going out; especially walking. It opens my mind to seeing new things and prospectives. I like reading and watching tutorials about barbecue. I also like spending time with my family. When not grilling, I also enjoy spending time making culinary stars. For example, I was a participating judge and coach in the recently organised Street Foodz Naija. I also enjoy making guest appearances on TV shows.
Describe your grilling style in few words…
Your ambition for 8tte’s Barbecue & Cocktail…
I see my brand as an international brand. Funny enough, I’ve catered for international and local celebrities. So, I see my brand everywhere in the world, bringing Nigerian spices to the world. Currently, being in the South South for this long, I said let me share the experience with the South West— Lagos precisely. You know, Lagos is like the hub of entertainment and entertainment is not complete without food. So, now that I’m setting up in Lagos, I will be bringing our own fusion from the South South down to the South West.