Photo Credit: Jeff Schear/Getty Images for The James Beard Foundation.
An Evening with Ayo Balogun, the Chef Behind the Most Intimate Nigerian Restaurant in Brooklyn
Ayo Balogun is the brains behind Department of Culture, Brooklyn’s most authentic Nigerian restaurant. We spent an evening at the restaurant, taking in all of its charms.
“Imagine if you've never seen a Nigerian restaurant before and you had to build one from inception. What would it look like? Because there's a warmth of the Yoruba people that I'm trying to capture. It's not a formality or snobbery of the cuisine, I don't think we are fine dining. Buthow do you imagine the warmth of the people when they are trying to entertain their guests? Those are the questions I was asking. How do you translate that into service?”
I’m speaking to Ayo Balogun, the chef, owner, host, porter, publicist, and head entertainer of Department of Culture, the Nigerian restaurant he opened on Nostrand Avenue 20 months ago, on a stretch north of Fulton where most of the cross streets are named after dead slave owners. It’s a Thursday night an hour before service. Balogun is sweeping the sidewalk, and from now until I leave in several hours, he will be talking. He gives the impression that he is excited to get to the end of one sentence so he can start a new one, his voice a deep-pitched and rocky register that covers a range of notes. There is lilting music in his British-inflected Nigerian accent: a theatricality full of dramatic pauses that play like soundbites.
If you’ve worked in restaurants, have known any restaurateurs, or read any press around restaurant openings in New York, you’ve heard iterations of the quote I opened this piece with for decades. Each place will promise to reinvent the wheel of service, using the culture of the cuisine specific to the restaurant to show their guests a bold and fresh vision of hospitality. It’s lofty bullshit to make a very boring and derivative product sound inspired and original, because you go to 99% of these restaurants and they’re all exactly the same. But what makes Department of Culture more than another flavor-of-the-moment trend hub, is Balogun’s passion for what he’s saying. In his endearing magnetism, you believe he means it all — even his schtick.
The authenticity of Department of Culture
Photo by Abe Beame for Okaylayer.
After coming from his native state of Kwara in East Central Nigeria in the late ‘90s, Balogun did everything you could do in many New York restaurants for two decades: cooking many different cuisines across different levels of refined dining, flexing easily between back and front of house as he moved from gig to gig, and going wherever his curiosity took him. But it was his version of Cuban paladares (intimate de facto restaurants that would open inside people’s homes under Castro’s communism) that he did with his uncle years ago that eventually became Department of Culture, preparing the food from Kwara he couldn’t find in his chosen home and wanting to share it with his community. Meaning — there isn’t a headline-grabbing Nigerian interpretation of a chopped cheese here.
“I don’t want to bastardize Nigerian food. I want to cook it the way it looked over there,” he said. “If you're going to serve food somebody has never seen before, I think you should serve it the way it comes first, before you start changing things around.”
Department of Culture’s space is adapted and handmade. It was a barbershop before it became a restaurant, and you can still see traces of that along a wall lined with a bank of painted over (but still operational) electrical outlets where barbers plugged in their clippers. The open kitchen, roughly half the size of a pre-war studio, has three induction burners, an under-bar Breville toaster oven, and an Instant Pot. There’s no mechanical dishwasher. There’s a Thermenex I pointed out and asked Balogun about, who laughed and said in response: “It’s a fancy thing that rich people have. They wanted to give it to me as a gift. I don’t know how to use it.” The cold space is a tall reach-in beverage fridge likely repurposed from a bodega or pizzaria, a knee-high compact fridge and freezer that sit side-by-side on the floor, and one actual twin-door commercial lowboy. There’s a coffee station that seems to primarily be for Balogun (a caffeine addict who also owns The Bureau Cafe, his year-old coffee shop down the street where he’d worked that day since 7:30 a.m.). Aside from a loft compartment over the bathroom, and dry goods mostly stored under steel prep tables, that’s really it. There’s no basement. Decor is the Venetian blinds over the storefront windows, a wall-length accent work of art contributed by a friend, a communal-reclaimed wooden table that takes up half the space, and many framed photographs of Balogun’s family. It all adds to the restaurant’s uncanny Malkovichian sense that you’ve stepped inside a person’s head.
To be able to pull off one accomplished four-course meal for a packed house in this space and with these tools, would be impressive. To do it twice a night several nights a week, and every week for nearly two years, is nothing short of miraculous. Here is how the first course of the evening was built: goat pepper soup with tripe, which was simmering when I came in before service and perfumed the air with its brolic funk (despite the best efforts of a few burning knubs of palo santo). The pot is pulled moments before serving into 16 bowls laid out in rows on the prep table, with Balogun and his entire staff — an even-tempered and unfailingly polite ginger named Carter from Massachusetts, who more or less runs front of house, and Abe, a stocky and affable sous chef and dishwasher from Puebla — plating the dish.
Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.
Balogun pulled a hunk of still-braising bone-in goat shoulder and used a spoon to remove several shreds of the meat and nestle chunks of it at the bottom of each bowl, before returning the rest of the meat to the broth to continue enriching the braising liquid for the second seating. Each chunk was then topped by portioned slivers of honeycomb goat tripe (taken out of its own pot where it was braised separately) with large tweezers, followed by the broth being ladled into each bowl through a mesh tea strainer. Then, each bowl got a wilted scent leaf (African basil) as garnish, serving as the final piece of the dish. It's a deliberate and painstaking build with many touches on the plate, for a metric cup of soup that’s reflective of the thought and process behind every ingredient and gesture I observed in the restaurant.
The comfortable imperfection of Department of Culture
Before diners could dig into each dish, Balogun got up in front of his guests and presented crucial context for each one. They are, of course, folksy riffs. For example, as he presented his asaro (a hearty, complex, and sweet yam stew), he offered the following anecdote: “This is a dish I hated as a kid. It makes me think about school, Agatha Christie, National Geographic, and Voltron.” The plating process, serving, and shpiel takes somewhere between 10-15 minutes, start to finish. As a result, all three of my savory dishes were room temp when I dug in. It’s not something I minded, as they were also all shot through with heat from various peppers including ata rodo (or scotch bonnet), with the spice more than compensating for the temperature. Sure, this doesn't cohere with Western expectations of restaurant service. But it hasn’t hurt the restaurant’s business at all, which continues to rack up plaudits (according to Balogun, it remains extremely difficult to book weeks out since its second night of service).
Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer
I bring all of this up because I find it a feature — rather than a bug — that needs to be fixed. It’s not the perfection of Department of Culture that makes it unique, but its comfortable imperfection. I think the restaurant's most admirable quality is its variability, quirkiness, and authenticity no amount of fine dining hazing can emulate.
As Balogun suggested: “The warmth should be part of the standard we’re judged by.” It’s a metric we discount in the interest of other, more tangible elements of service far too often. But it’s clear that it’s something Balogun cares about. As I watched him calmly plating a course with an absent smile of concentration on his face at one point throughout the night, I looked to his guests in the dining room, all of them drinking, making friends with strangers, and listening to JuJu records, unconcerned with when the next plate would land. It was a moment that reflected the importance of warmth to Balogun, but also led me to wonder: in an industry famous for its inhuman and unsustainable, anxiety-inducing pace and pressure, could this serve as a different model?
It also helps that Department of Culture has dishes that are so enjoyable that you’ll likely remember them well after you’ve eaten them. Here’s a dish that I’ll never forget: an egusi stew that served as the final savory course. It began with a quenelle of iyan (the slightly more pliant form of fufu, or pounded yam) freshly whipped in a pot and spooned out by Balogun, serving as the stage for the protein, braised-smoked catfish. A moat of obe — made with a blend of roasted red peppers and dried crayfish that smells like dashi and tastes like a sweet and hot XO sauce — is ladled around the iyan. The catfish is then topped with a messy bun of tangled spinach cooked down with chopped habanero, and finished with an egusi sauce made of blended fermented locust beans and melon seeds that looks like a bright yellow, broken emulsion directed by Michael Mann. It’s a bowl displaying an incredible amount of technique, layering many flavors and textures with its competing forms of chew in the creamy, gluey iyan, and firm catfish jerky. It functions like a rustic bowl of grits under a braise you might make at home for your kids on a Sunday, if grits could bite back.
Of all the elements that threaten modern, successful restaurants in New York, the greatest may be ambition. To sustain what you have, expansion can feel necessary here: to keep your brand ringing out, to have room for growth for your valued staff, to satisfy your next creative itch, and, of course, to make more money in a low-margin industry. You see it time and time again, growing before you’re ready can dilute your brand, stretch your limited resources thin, and kill the great momentum and high standards you had going for you.
Abe Beame for Okayplayer
In 20 months, Balogun has never missed a service at Department of Culture. It seems unthinkable the place could work without him, as intimately tied as it is to his food, life, and personality. It’s a gift and a curse — he is the magic ingredient in his restaurant. But it must adapt, eventually. His other restaurant, Radio Kwara, is a bid for a more traditional and conventional restaurant. Not only is it built out of a former restaurant, there’s a new staff with Michelin pedigree, an actual mechanical dishwasher, and (unlike Department of Culture) it has printed menus (that, in classic Balogun fashion, offer a whimsical narrative that sort of discusses the dishes). It’s currently in beta testing; some of what will eventually be more streamlined dishes that can be made without Balogun are still in drafts, and the restaurant has had an irregular schedule on Tuesdays and Saturdays since July, as Balogun trains the staff and works out the kinks before the restaurant hard launches in the fall. Balogun views the space as an opportunity to present some non-traditional dishes that still have firm ties to Kwara, as well as a challenge to himself in continuing to spread the gospel of Kwara. The most interesting and exciting of several dishes I tried on my visit was essentially a fish pepper soup ramen made with Indomie noodles, because the instant ramen producer has a major presence in Nigeria.
As for Department of Culture, Balogun hopes to keep the same format and style of service in place, but be able to swap himself out for other Nigerian chefs who will essentially take up a residency, and make their own tasting menus and tell their own stories. The end goal is to slowly expand his map from outside of Kwara to display, share, and give New York a taste of the many other cuisines from many regions of the enormous country, where more than 30 million people speak over 500 native languages.
After the two hour service was finished at Department of Culture and the room had gotten through dessert (a perfect, simply caramelized plantain topped with Haagen-Dazs vanilla scooped out of a retail quart), Balogun had a final shpiel where he repeated a version of the opening quote, discussed Radio Kwara, and then took questions, humoring his Bed Stuy bohemian crowd no matter how silly or inane a food tourist who just wanted to have the room’s attention for a moment could be. Then, after they shuffled out, he hung outside the restaurant for a bit, hovering among the individual groups that formed in front, continuing the conversation. Balogun walked me out to my bike as he went over the fine points of service and things that could’ve been better, but he wasn’t terribly concerned about it. Then, we shook hands and parted ways. I put in my noise canceling earbuds and started streaming a Fuji record I discovered from a spinning record label during the meal. Even a block away, I could still faintly hear Balogun talking to someone in the street.
Abe Beame: Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @TheFakeAbeBeame
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