This first Chef-in-residence at Blue Hill at Stone barns is committed to educating about delicious sustainable food through techniques, flavors and traditions.
Photo Courtesy of Shola Olunloyo
"The future of food is about education."
Nigerian chef Shola Olunloyo is a distinguished member of the Philadelphia restaurant community, with a reputation for highly technical food and exciting flavors. Schooled in both England and Nigeria, he continued his culinary studies in a series of apprenticeships and stages across Europe, East, and Southeast Asia, working at some of the most formative restaurants in the industry. Along the way, he’s cultivated up a phenomenal library of techniques, flavors, and traditions with a special emphasis on fermentation. A culinary jack-of-all-trades, Olunloyo has also worked in food writing and catering.
In 2002, he opened the culinary laboratory StudioKitchen, where he experiments with culinary concepts, flavors, and cutting-edge technology. In his kitchen, he works with restaurants and food equipment manufacturers in order to develop new ideas. In 2021, he was the first Chef-in-residence at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where he re-interpreted the bounty of Hudson Valley through the lens of Yoruba Nigerian cuisine and highlighted the rich and complex flavors that make up the coastal region.
Across this interview Chef Shola tells us more about his philosophy and explains to us how sustainability and taste are strongly connected.
Welcome Shola to Chefs for Impact!
By Shola Olunloyo as told to Chefs for Impact
How did you become a Chef?
“I became a Chef through circumstances and necessity. I grew up in Nigeria in a household where, at that time in the 80s, it wasn’t really a place where you go to the grocery store and can buy everything. In France, you go to the market and you see all the vegetables there, then the butcher shop, then buy fish somewhere and make food. All these experiences to see food in a very organic dynamic forces you to understand and build a better-quality index of food, as opposed to just walk in a supermarket, buy and leave. Those are the roots of sustainability. Understanding the origins and the ingredients while also engaging excellence from the beginning. That’s my relationship with food and my fascination with flavors. As a very practical, technical person, I started cooking in a quest to reproduce or improve things that I had tasted before. As I continue to gain tactile knowledge and skills it took me to the restaurant business, working for Chefs. It wasn’t always easy to work with them, but I learnt a lot and it set the stringboard of my technical knowledge as a cook. I continued to travel and see the world, while I am still applying that base knowledge and respect for ingredients. Eventually I ended up cooking at Blue Hill and taking over a two Michelin stars restaurant for a month!"
What’s your philosophy when it comes to sustainable food?
“My philosophy is that food isn’t necessarily a function of ethnic origin, it is a set of chemical relationships between ingredients, influenced by culture, geography or by nature. The more creative you become, the less the walls between ingredients in terms of creating food that is delicious and, in fact, sustainable. Being a Chef is about understanding a lot of the walls around me in other disciplines, such as nature, agriculture, architecture, art, history, music, etc. It’s a continuous attachment to refinement and intellectual curiosity. The most important thing is the will to know about other cultures, to travel, think, eat, be less of a politician but more of a cook. To be less of a scientist and more of a grandmother. And just make tasty food!”
In what capacity will your experience at Blue Hill at Stone Barns influence the way you’ll work and keep educating consumers?
“Being with Dan Barber has given me a whole new window of exploration. How do we source? Do we really trace back? What are the farmers doing? How is it affecting their own economics, personal lives, and situation? I continue to grow, to search, and to think. I’ve been back in Philadelphia, but also I’ve been to Blue Hill a few times already to work with them on other projects. Part of the residency was also to continue the conversations and the relationship. Beyond the actual physical residency, to let it be like a window into a permanent collaboration of ideas that continue to evolve. It’s been very rewarding and I’m extremely happy about the results.”
Can you tell us more about your culinary laboratory StudioKitchen?
“StudioKitchen started as a word that I made up because I was tired of working for other Chefs. The passion was no longer really there, I was tired of reproducing other people’s ideas. I decided to try to find myself and my own voice. I decided I would take whatever minimal income I could afford not to have and use that as a basis to make my own ‘atelier’. It would be my own unrestricted, think tank to play with my own ideas, and then figure out how to monetize it. We did pop-up dinners and experimentation, then it evolved into product and concept development for various partners. This included manufacturers of equipment and brands who develop new technology for cooking. I collaborated with a lot of European brands over the years as a technical culinary consultant to educate people on how to use their equipment. I’m trying to make cooking a more pleasurable endeavor for people in the industry. I tried to look at the industry in many ways, which is why StudioKitchen is a think tank, atelier, and food solution in various sectors.”
How do you educate the next generation of Chefs about sustainability?
“First, I’m only one person and I’m not as famous as some other Chefs who say something and immediately hundreds of people listen. I spread my values by volunteering my time in places where opportunities arise. By talking to people like you, by supporting initiatives, sharing my ideas, and adding my knowledge to non-profit entities. I’m always happy to teach kids how to make a delicious risotto! Also, I consider my social media to offer a very generous number of specific details and information. It is there and it is free! Everything I do I catalog, and I put on the internet for free. I engage with Chefs; I share my ideas and I do collaborations. If people approach me with clever novel things that would broaden their audience, such as Blue Hill, I’m very willing to mentor and advise. I also try to connect with local cooking schools. If a young person is considering a cooking career, let them spend the day with me in my kitchen to do interesting things, and for them to understand instead of having them peel carrots. The future of food is about education”.
Learn more: https://www.studiokitchen.com/