On Sunday, the 30th of April, 2017, the much talked about GTBank Food and Drink Fair began. As the sun began to warm the venue, gently, no one was yet certain about what to expect. Guests streamed in, vendors called out, the comperes kept the place alive over the speakers… While all that was going on, the first Masterclass by Chef Abiola Akanji (aka Chef Stone) went underway. By the time the tall, slender chef was done with the preparation and presentation of his Salmon Wellington, his students emerged from the classroom to a different event. The hitherto mellow venue had transformed into a gigantic food carnival. The crowd had become so huge that movement was tough. The DJ, at the peak of his powers, had vendors dancing while they sold. There was palpable joy, and you could see that this was beyond everyone’s expectations. First credit: In spite of the mammoth crowd, the atrium was comfortably cool.
At the outdoor exhibition area, well, the Sun came to the Fair. It was sweltering. The Farmers’ Market area had beautifully thatched sheds, and the grill areas too – enough places for people to take shelter, but many found no logic in evading the sun that was, and still is, Nature’s biggest gift. Under it they lay, their backs against the fine synthetic grass, sun shades covering their eyes… and they savoured the moment.
Guests were milling gleefully about, dazed by the sheer amount and variety of food on offer. From goat rotisseries, to barbecues, grilled seafood, sandwiches, rolls, steak… Inside the atrium there were all shades and flavours of ice creams, smoothies, waffles, muffins, pastries, coffee, milkshakes, baby food, on and on. Trust Nigerians to appreciate the foreign, but know that they looove the indigenous. The longest queues led to where akara and koko were sold; amala, ewedu, gbegeri; ewa agoin, boli and fish, pounded, roasted, fried yam; cocoyam, snailwarmer, gizzard, name them. As Masterclass after Masterclass was packed full, you felt the sacrifice people were making to leave all this food for a while to go sit through hours of lectures. The classes had to be worth it, and boy were they! Up until the point when Chef Brian Malarkey came to shift the focus from cooking to starting and running successful restaurants, students had been mesmerized by spellbinding cuisines and their preparation methods from Chef Stone, Chef Jehan Powell from the Caribbean, and Chef Lerato Umah-Shaylor. The reward for attention and active participation in the classes was a chance to taste the food that was made, and that pact kept the class awake and lively. For Chef Malarkey’s class, not just a chance to taste was on offer, he handed out a couple of his very voluminous cookbooks too. Then came Chef Tolu Eros to seal the day with a delicious culinary wand.
For each day, the Fair was billed to start at 10am and close at 8pm. As the curtain fell on Day One, you sensed that people had no qualms trooping out of the premises, thoroughly satisfied. The reason for such eager obedience wasn’t immediately decipherable, but it wasn’t farfetched either. As the organizers would learn, tomorrow was another day; whatever missed opportunities, whatever unexplored menus… tomorrow was there to look forward to.
Monday dawned with uncommon audacity. In complete contrast to the day gone by, one of Lagos’ heaviest rains in recent times took over the morning. It was as if the rain was jealous of all the fun the Sun had a day earlier. Day Two, the rain came, and it did so pretty early. The argument for who the better cosmic guest was can go either way, but Monday set out to be equally unique. When the rain had subsided to showers, people’s patience to wait for it ran out; they came thronging again. And under a very clement weather, Day Two proceeded.
The Italy-trained Chef Benedict Okuzu’s Masterclass came first. In the front row of his class were Europeans who concurred with his every move as he made his signature four-course Italian meal over remarkably high heat. When the time to taste came, people’s eyes were closing as their mouths were opening; the aroma was apparently disarming, and the taste put participants in a state of inertia. Such was the taste.
Chef Nkesi Enyioha followed, with kitchen instincts that formed in Port Harcourt, and have been molded and refined by Nigerian gastronomic desires.
Chef after chef, the thrill heightened. Chef Rafael Duntoye, a returning Masterclass anchor, didn’t just retain his kitchen appeal from last year’s event, it was amplified. By the time he was done, he had accumulated much more fans, and much more young people jostling to be his protégés.
All the while, the children were ensconced in their own arena, having their own Masterclasses mixed with a big dose of fun and games. Every now and then adults disappeared into those quarters to enjoy the beauty of happy children working, learning and playing.
Back on the big stage, the Food and Fitness enthusiast and chef, Kevin Curry, was up next. The Texan confessed to being awestruck by the level of energy in the room. Surprised and impressed, he had as much fun as his heart could hold – even taking a selfie with the over 300 students in his class.
The last Masterclass was by Chef Ronke Edoho. Her down-to-earth presentation brought the room to a deafening silence as she made some piercing quips. The most solemn of them all was when she asked, “Do you know how blessed you are, to be able to just stretch your hand and pluck a sweet mango?” She explained that in some developed countries children may not practically know that mangoes come from trees out in the fields, not the mall. It made everyone pause and think for a while. Chef Ronke said that her food craft was formed around the incompatibility of her love for food and love for a flat tummy at the same time. That conundrum led her to the discovery that, love for food isn’t necessarily farewell to a fit body. Much like Kevin Curry, she urged that one can eat great, and still eat healthy.
8pm had come, had passed, but the fun was nowhere near abating. It was the last night – for this year, at least – and people were simply unwilling to let it go. A general feeling of nostalgia rent the air, but it was intruded upon by the DJ’s relentlessness. Nigerian music became the food of the night as speakers blared from every corner of the vast GT Center. About three shawarmas left, thirty people on the queue. Seven smoothies left, twenty nine people waiting to buy, on and on. Vendors sold out; mission accomplished. But GTBank has become a nursery bed for stories and memorable experiences for, while the Fair was ending, several other stories could surely be beginning. Stories of inspiration: New businesses would emerge in the coming days, inspired by the GTBank Food and Drink Fair; already existing businesses would dream new dreams, aim for new heights, new vistas, and gain renewed passion; and as beautiful people we lured out by food and drink to this sprawling carnival, who knows, budding love stories anyone?