A five-alarm fire burned San Francisco’s first Nigerian restaurant, Èkó Kitchen, to the ground in July 2020.
Founder and chef Simileoluwa Adebajo, who had just moved into the building a week before to resume her original takeout and delivery-only model as the pandemic raged around her, lost everything.
The one-two punch would be enough to make any fledgling restaurateur walk away from a business, but not Simileoluwa Adebajo.
“I try to always find a silver lining,” she says, and there were plenty of them to find: Donations from supporters began pouring in, Èkó found a new home in the kitchen at Merkado, the tequila-and-mezcal-focused Mexican restaurant and open-air market in South Beach, and Adebajo discovered SF New Deal, the nonprofit that put Covid-shuttered restaurants to work feeding those in need. She’s now on the latter’s board of directors.
“SF New Deal felt like it was the missing key to finding fulfillment in my business,” Adebajo explains. “I was able to deliver 12,000 to 15,000 meals to vulnerable people. I would give all of my energy, all of my time, to know that the food I was cooking was making a meaningful impact.”
Èkó Kitchen's modern Nigerian cuisine.(Reed Davis)
The humanitarian work she’s done in San Francisco over the last couple of years is just one of the new ventures now keeping her busy, because Adebajo is as much entrepreneur as she is chef, and her star is rising fast.
Adebajo’s second business venture, Whipped Ori, a skin- and haircare company cofounded with childhood friend Bimpe Abiru, was born of necessity. When she moved to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2016 for a master’s degree in international economics, Adebajo expected to be able to walk into any drugstore to find shea butter, an essential natural beauty product back home. But every jar she picked up was full of chemicals and her skin was suffering. So, she began whipping her own, adding an aromatic pop with essential oils like lavender, tea tree, and peppermint.
“The way it made my skin glow and moisturized my hair, I had never seen it look better,” she remembers. “Before you know it, I said ‘I’m going to start selling this and I’m going to name it ori,’ which means shea butter [in Yoruba].”
Now a third business, Apęrę, a lifestyle brand of hand-woven bags, baskets and other products made by artisans in Lagos, is in the works. Together, they are the foundation of a budding empire built around the pillars of nourishing food, natural ingredients, and providing for the most vulnerable members of society.
To balance her time among her projects, Adebajo has strategically decided to stop operating Èkó Kitchen as a restaurant. But she is by no means abandoning the business that brought her national attention. Instead, Èkó will focus on feeding the community, something which has brought her great fulfillment over the last two years. She will also continue to operate as a private chef and caterer, host events like the upcoming Afrocentric dinner party "Homecoming" at Merkado on February 18th (6pm to 10pm), and teach her popular pop-up cooking classes, including those she's holding virtually during Black History Month (from $50/person).
(Courtesy of Eko Kitchen)
For those who can’t make it to an event, there’s Adebajo’s new cookbook, From Èkó With Love.
“I like to use three words [to describe Nigerian food]: bold, flavorful, and spicy. Our dishes are supposed to take you to one extreme or the other in terms of flavors,” she says. “Nigerian food is hot but it’s also complex because, most dishes, you’re getting more than one flavor profile—smoky, savory, sour, spicy, sweet—there are multiple things going on at once.”
The cookbook is full of modern Nigerian recipes, many of which she perfected at the restaurant, including popular favorites like jollof rice and asun (spicy, roast goat) with sweet potatoes and plantains.
Chances are, it’s all just the start for this chef and entrepreneur with the rare ability to nurture an idea from dream to reality.
“I like to look to other Black women who I’ve seen follow this trajectory. Rhianna is one of them. Rhianna went from being a musician, she started a skincare company, a lingerie company, and is a multi-billionaire now,” Adebajo says. “I’m like, why not? I’m going to try my best to keep on growing.”