Cooking Across America, Nigerian Pop-Up Chef Spreads Taste Of Home : The Salt Tunde Wey wanted to share the food of his West African childhood. So he crossed the U.S. by bus, hosting pop-up dinners along the way. But Wey, like many immigrants, found success can unravel quickly.
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Chasing Food Dreams Across U.S., Nigerian Chef Tests Immigration System

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Chasing Food Dreams Across U.S., Nigerian Chef Tests Immigration System

Chasing Food Dreams Across U.S., Nigerian Chef Tests Immigration System

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Most aspiring chefs dream of owning their own restaurant - the white hat, the gleaming kitchen, the fancy menu - but Tunde Wey had his own version of that dream.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The young Nigerian-born chef wanted to see the United States and also share the food of his West African childhood with friends and strangers along the way. And so a few months ago, Wey packed up his knives and his spices, and he hopped on a Greyhound bus. He borrowed kitchens in cities like New Orleans, Chicago and Buffalo. He was essentially cooking his way around America.

MONTAGNE: Word got around. His one-night cooking gigs began selling out, but then, Tunde Wey discovered how quickly success can come tumbling down. Eliza Barclay of NPR's food blog, The Salt, has his story.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIFE CHOPPING)

ELIZA BARCLAY, BYLINE: Wey calls his one-man pop-up Lagos, after his hometown in Nigeria. I caught up with him the day he was preparing dinner in Washington, D.C.

TUNDE WEY: I'm going to add a little more palm oil in here because this is getting a little dry. Palm oil is, like, a sexier, more full-bodied oil to, like, regular cooking oil. It just has soul, you know?

BARCLAY: Wey is kind of like a traveling showman. For every dinner party he throws in a new city, he has to borrow a space. Today, he has taken over a restaurant called Toki Underground, and he's got a huge vat of goat head stew simmering on the stove.

WEY: Going to be some eyeballs in this and some mandibles (laughter).

BARCLAY: What are mandibles?

WEY: That's the jaw of the goat. You are going to eat some teeth today.

BARCLAY: Wey's been at it since 9 a.m. It's now mid-afternoon, and he's moving between a blender, four massive pots slick with that sexy palm oil and his spice bag.

WEY: A doctor has a medicine bag. I have a spice bag.

BARCLAY: This bag is Wey's most important prop. He carries it from kitchen to kitchen.

WEY: Alligator pepper seeds. This is uda, ehuru spice. It's like a calabash nutmeg.

BARCLAY: When he cracks it open, I get a whiff of another land.

WEY: So just, like, all of this stuff is in here, and sometimes, I'll have stock fish, which smells so bad.

BARCLAY: Now, Wey never actually planned to become a chef. His parents dreamed he'd become a doctor. They sent him to the U.S. when he was 16 to study science, but 15 years later, after a string of college majors and false starts, Wey realized he wanted to cook. He had no formal training.

WEY: I learned how to cook from, like, watching my parents, my aunt, lot of YouTube videos in between all that.

BARCLAY: The idea for the Nigerian pop-up came to him after a brief stint at an American restaurant in Detroit.

WEY: The benefit that I have is that I grew up with this for good, and so I know exactly what it's supposed to taste like.

BARCLAY: As Wey spent more time in the kitchen, he found that he missed his family more and more. He hadn't seen them for seven years. So as he planned the pop-up, he turned to his parents for help with everything from recipes to music.

WEY: So my family was, like, interested in the details of the business. Then I had these conversations with them and my other family members, and I felt more connected - actually, infinitely more connected.

BARCLAY: And he shares that connection when he makes food for other people.

WEY: When I was younger, my mom used to give me kisses on my cheek, and she would just, like, you know, be all sloppy. And I would do the same. Just, like, that feeling of, like, being kissed - like, I get that when I'm eating, so it's evocative, you know? That's how food affects me.

BARCLAY: And he hopes his diners will feel it, too. When I met him in D.C. in December, Wey had been on the road cooking for two months, and he'd pretty much got his rhythm down. It's 7 p.m., and the show is on. Tiffany Farchione is loving the food.

TIFFANY FARCHIONE: It's hot, but - and it hurts, but you still want more because it's so delicious.

BARCLAY: She's here with her friend Sara Moulton.

SARA MOULTON: That spinach dish that I'm holding in my hand right now is absolutely amazing, and I would kill for the recipe at this point. And my mouth is burned off from the goat pepper soup.

BARCLAY: And as for the goat head, diner Dave Grossman pronounces it...

DAVE GROSSMAN: Delicious, expertly stewed, really quite thrilling.

BARCLAY: That night, Wey was on a roll. He a string of gigs lined up, some seating up to 50 people at $55 a head. Soon after, he got his biggest break. A celebrity chef invited them to his Los Angeles restaurant on February 5. The New York Times said it would be there, but Wey never made it. On the way to L.A., his Greyhound bus stopped outside of El Paso, and border patrol agents climbed aboard. They were not impressed with his old Nigerian passport.

WEY: I had, like, this - I remember an uncontrollable chill. Like, I was just, like, so cold, and there was so much adrenaline, like, rushing through my body.

BARCLAY: The thing was back in 2007, while he was figuring out what to do with his life, he'd let his student visa expire.

WEY: I just thought, like, I'll fix this. I'm going to go back to school, finish school, adjust my status somehow. And so it was something I kept putting off.

BARCLAY: So instead of cooking in L.A., he was locked up in an El Paso detention center. Wey said it seemed like everything he'd built was tumbling down, but Wey's been lucky. Almost half the people in the U.S. illegally are like him. They let visas expire. But Wey had a clean record and a network of friends and family. They raised $6,000, and he's now out on bail.

WEY: I'm sometimes frustrated that it's limiting, but, I mean, I'm comfortable with the reality that is my life. I'm not ashamed of it.

BARCLAY: Because there's such a backlog backlog in the immigration courts, Wey has a bit of a reprieve. His next appointment with an immigration judge isn't until 2017. The judge will decide then whether he's allowed to stay or must go. In the meantime, he's planning more dinners, and he's just opened a Nigerian stall in a food market in New Orleans. Eliza Barclay, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: And you can find pictures of Tunde Wey at work and some of his Nigerian crossover concoction at NPR.org. Also, a reminder that you can find us on Facebook. We're also on Twitter - @morningedition, @nprgreene and @nprmontagne.

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