I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. My mother worked for Cadbury as a research and development manager. She ran the test kitchen there, and she was in charge of new lines of products. Food was always a big part of growing up. My mom would read the nutrition labels on the back of packages to see what was in it and understand how things were made. There were always these huge bags of candy, and I could never understand why I couldn’t eat it. But my mom was like, “It’s for research.”
So I moved here. Originally, I thought I was going to go to school for biochemistry, to be a researcher like my mom. But I ended up in college and hated chemistry. Biology was fine. So I enrolled in a culinary arts program. I finished it and started working in pastry kitchens. I think it had something to do with my science background. I loved precision. When I make my cup of coffee, I get out a scale and I measure it in grams.
I moved to New York in 2008 and I worked at Milk Bar when it just opened. So I was like one of the first six or seven employees. When opened, our menu changed almost every day, so recipe development was a huge part of working there. I just threw myself into R&D. I loved R&D. I would make a bread, or a type of bread, 10 times. I took a one-day-a-week internship in the test kitchen at Saveur. I don’t think I noticed it at that time, but I was being re-exposed to a test kitchen.
I started my company, Four Salt Spoons, in 2018. I work on cookbooks. That’s the bulk of my work: testing cookbooks for authors and publishers. I work also with (various magazines) on recipe testing and recipe development. I am working with a lady who runs a soup company, and developing recipes using her frozen soups. Some food styling here and there, but my main focus is development and testing. I worked with Sana Kadri from Diaspora Co. testing recipes for her zine. She is such a strong spirit, and her aura is golden. I’ve never had powdered turmeric as fragrant or as earthy.
I’ll start with the goal. And to me, the goal of a recipe is to take a creative idea and replicate it out in the world. You know? To do that effectively, there has to be a set of instructions and directions that one, people can understand when they read, and two, can be consistent regardless of who makes it. I write out the ingredients. And because I have been doing this for a while, I can put an amount (of time) that I think will work next to the ingredients.
A typical day would start with, like, going to the grocery store, going to the market, wherever I think I can find the ingredients that I need. Come back, I like to have all of my ingredients out before I start working. If you say, “Oh, I forgot this item,” and it takes me 30 minutes to go get this item, that’s not an accurate reading of the recipe time. You want to be fully prepared. So I lay all of the ingredients out on a sheet tray, get my scale out. Testing is precision in the sense that you are measuring every single step of the way.
I think cooking and baking are two different things. Cooking allows you to be more intuitive. Even if you have instructions for cooking, you don’t necessarily have to follow them. The instructions could be sort of a guideline of sorts, but you don’t have to stick to them, and cooking gives you the space to do that. Baking, on the other hand, you have to follow the instructions. So that’s how I understood baking. It doesn’t change. You dare not mess up the instructions because your item, your croissant, wouldn’t be as flaky. I keep using croissants (as an example) because I always have butter on my mind!
I love sharing food. And I think recipes are one way to do that. And there’s, you know — recipes are like a story hidden in a set of instructions, almost. And I could go on a trip to wherever … like Zimbabwe for two weeks and come back, and the memory of that trip would exist, for me, in a recipe. What did I learn to cook while I was there? What dish did I have that I can come back and re-create? So there is a sort of history in a sense, an anthropological take on food. Recipes are a great way to do that. And because the goal of a recipe is to share, it’s sort of like sending it out into the world.
As told to George McCalman, an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @mccalman.co