Saturday, June 10, 2023

Azu Ishiekwene: On eve of transition, Nigerian chef cooks up a storm

The culinary queen is obviously offering her cheerleaders what is absent in the menu of politicians. And they’re not in a hurry to leave her table.

• May 25, 2023
Hilda Baci,President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu,Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi
Hilda Baci,President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu,Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi

After weeks of being at daggers drawn over the results of the last general elections and with only days to the inauguration of a new government on May 29, one of Nigeria’s three biggest pastimes – food – appears to be bringing people together again. 

On a good day, the country swoons over football or music. In the last two weeks, however, Nigerians up and down the food chain have been flocking to the pot of 27-year-old Hilda Bassey Effiong, fondly called Hilda Baci, who is on the verge of confirmation as the new holder of the Guinness World Records for the longest cooking time. 

Nigeria’s President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and the two other leading contestants – former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party; and Peter Obi of the Labour Party – who have not seen eye-to-eye since the February 25 presidential poll, all lined up nicely behind Hilda’s kitchen from May 11 to 15, invoking the national can-do spirit on social media. For a moment, they buried the hatchet. 

Also, celebrities riven by partisan politics, friends and family, and ordinary folks defied at least two nights of heavy downpours in Lagos to cheer Hilda. A country deeply divided by the outcome of the elections appears to have found common ground in Hilda’s recipe. 

After four days of dicing, marinating, boiling, frying, baking and grilling, Hilda toppled the 87 hours 45 minutes individual cooking record set by Indian chef Lata Tandon three years ago. The Nigerian set a new record of 100 cooking hours, with 55 recipes and more than 100 meals. 

Yet, when Hilda first announced she would challenge the record, it sounded like a joke, even to her. 

“I’ve been obsessed about the Guinness Book of Records,” she told TVC, a Nigerian TV station. “It was out of obsession that I randomly asked my brother about five years ago who the holder of the world’s longest cooking record was.”

In a country where four in ten are poor, attempting a record in most fields is a long shot. Hilda had seen misery upfront, especially during COVID-19 when she supported less privileged communities in Lagos with 3000 meals at her own expense and came down with the virus. She certainly does not belong in the class once controversially described by President Muhammadu Buhari as “lazy youths.”

Her mother, Lynda Ndukwe, eked out a living from selling food in open space before she later started ‘Calabar Pot’, a makeshift eatery in Abuja’s middle-class working area. 

Mrs Ndukwe struggled to put her children through school, and by the time they finished, she had barely enough left in the tank. All she could offer any adventurous child at this time were her prayers and best wishes, though once, when Hilda competed in a beauty pageant, her mother parcelled traditional costumes to her over hundreds of miles. 

Though Hilda had tried to make a career as a supporting actor, TV presenter, restaurateur, and Big Brother Africa left-out if she was ever going to get a shot at her dream of toppling Tandon, the cook-a-thon record holder, she needed to be in form, a far cry from where she was two years ago.

She was having weight problems and had undergone liposuction, a process which she later described as one of the darkest periods of her life. To come through that period and announce a plan to challenge the world’s record holder, a task that would test even the very fit, seemed like a bridge too far.

Yet, Hilda was willing to try. Before her surgery that year, she competed in the continent’s hottest culinary warfare – that triangular title race among Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria over a dish of long-grain rice mixed with spicy stew aptly named the Jollof Face-off Competition. 

Hilda, representing Nigeria, beat Ghana’s Leslie Kumordzie to win the prize of $5,000, which seeded her dream for a modest online restaurant service, @Myfoodbyhilda, with the tagline, ‘Made with love’.

But love alone won’t pay bills. Or make dreams happen. Hilda took her fate into her own hands and left Abuja, her comfort zone where she had been with her mother, on a journey to the unknown. 

“Moving to Lagos was definitely a turning point for me,” she told The Nation newspaper in an interview shortly before she announced her cook-a-thon date. “The challenges I faced pretty much prepared me for this point. I did a nine-to-five and worked two jobs at a point. I worked as a cook. When I quit, I started my own show on DSTV. It was called ‘Dine on a Budget.’”

Lagos, Nigeria’s hustle capital, described in local folklore as the teaching place of the laggard and slothful, taught Hilda more than how to dream big. It instilled in her the appetite to pursue her dream and opened her to a wider network. 

After operating from a tiny restaurant for the first two years, using mainly home delivery service, she opened her first big spot in 2022 with four staff and kept her fire burning by offering online culinary lessons. She even awarded cash prizes to the best-performing students. 

By March this year, when Hilda officially announced her intention to challenge Tandon’s record, she had amassed a culinary army of supporters and some experience for the task. She also spent hours in mental and physical drills. But as she would find when the cook-a-thon started, the taste of a marathon is in the grind.

“I almost gave up six hours after I started,” Hilda told LEADERSHIP. “I was tired and couldn’t go on. But I was encouraged by my mother, who stood by me for 14 hours and gave me strength.”

Her mother and the country were rooting for her. In five days, her Instagram followers grew from 50,000 to 1.2 million. In the days after she reached the 100 hours mark, the accolades and offers of endorsement have not stopped coming. 

“One of my biggest goals is that I want Nigerian recipes to be propagated across the world,” she said. “I want it to be a normal thing to make egusi (melon) soup in an American environment, to walk into any random supermarket and find Nigerian ingredients. I also want to inspire young people, especially girls.”

Yet, competitors are snapping at her heels even before her dish is cold or her record is confirmed by Guinness World Records, which sometimes takes up to 12 weeks. 

Two chefs, Liberian Wonyean Aloycious Gaye and Kenyan chef Maliha Mohammed (who twice broke the cooking marathon record), have signalled they would challenge Hilda, drawing Nigerian trolls who are angry that competitors can’t wait to rain on Hilda’s parade.

The culinary queen is obviously offering her cheerleaders what is absent in the menu of politicians. And they’re not in a hurry to leave her table.

Ishiekwene is Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP

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