Chef Ayo Balogun of Dept of Culture is introducing North-Central Nigerian cuisine to American palates. And with only one table, the accolade-winning restaurant is booked for months.
When Ayo Balogun was a teenager spending the summer cooking with his grandmother in Western Nigeria's Kwara State, his uncle took him out for an exciting night in the country's capital Lagos, living it up at all sorts of restaurants, from dive bars to posh clubs.
"It was just one night. And I've been trying to recreate that evening since then. It's like, you're always chasing that thing," he said.
Now in Brooklyn, after moving to the US in 1998, Balogun is the chef of Dept of Culture, one of the hottest new restaurants in New York, praised for its warm atmosphere, heart-warming dishes and mission of introducing regional Nigerian cuisine to American palates. The tiny restaurant located in a former barber shop was listed as one of the Best New Restaurants of 2022 by Eater and has been shortlisted for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, which will announce winners in June.
Dept of Culture opened only a year ago in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, not far from the former Civil Service Café where Balogun organised his first pop-up dinners during the pandemic. (Balogun's parents were civil servants, hence the name.) Tiny but elegant, Dept of Culture only has one communal table and a counter with four stools. It can host just 16 people a night, and it's booked for months in advance.
The restaurant, which has a fixed menu, is a BYOB establishment where guests share a meal and often more than one bottle that they brought from home. On a recent night, the first course was a dish called asaro, a deliciously textured porridge made with two kinds of yam – sweet potato and white yam tuber – and served with smoked shrimp and crayfish for a little extra kick. Balogun's father ate it as a schoolboy in the 1950s, but Balogun himself didn't like it as a child.
"Now, I found myself eating it all the time," he explained. "It makes me think of, like, Agatha Christie, and watching TV after coming back from school."
For guests who are not accustomed to Nigerian cuisine, it's a dish that manages to be both comforting and familiar, even if you've never tried it before.
The second course, iyán – a pounded yam served with smoked fish, efo (spinach), egusi (fermented melon seeds) and iru (locust beans) had a much more unexpected elastic texture.
"It's like old people's food," joked Balogun.
When talking about his food, Balogun not only shares tales of his country – which he says is "the most beautiful in the world" – but also makes a point of saying any ingredient names in Yoruba first.
For instance, when introducing his spicy Goat Meat Pepper Soup – while reassuring guests that "you feel the heat, but it goes away" – Balogun spells out the name for pepper. "It's rodo. R-O-D-O," he said.
After all, this is the Dept of Culture.