In this in-depth interview, 28-year-old Chef Fregz shares straight from the heart about his career journey, peculiarities of running a culinary business in Nigeria, the significance of faith in God in his life, as well as thoughts on becoming a man. Read more:
Hi Chef Fregz, please tell us a bit about yourself – growing up, education, career, age, and the meaning of your names.
My name Is Gbubemi Fregene. I was born in Abeokuta. I grew up in Benin City where I went to primary school. I got my secondary school education from Olashore International School in Iloko Ijesha, Osun State. I also studied at Covenant University where I graduated with a 2.1 in Industrial Relations and Human Resources Management. I started cooking for friends and little functions at home; soon after NYSC, I got the chance to go to a culinary school in France. I am 28 years old. The meaning of my name – Orishagbubemi means God heard my cry. God answered my prayer.
When did you start your business and how did it come to be?
I started my business shortly after NYSC. I came back to Lagos with a plan… the plan was no plan but it was a plan because after long periods of prayers and fasting, I got validation and conviction that I was to do food. However, I didn’t really know the business of food. My mum helped with the basic costing. If it costs x to do this, it should cost you 2x to sell. I went to a culinary school and I came back to revamp what used to be a barbeque and grill setup to become a complete chef setup.
I got my first major opportunity by doing my friend’s graduation party; I started getting recommendations by friends and family and, like they say, the rest is history.
Who/what inspires your business drive and how big do you hope to build your personal brand and business/investments over the next 3-5 years?
People inspire my business. People’s responses have been encouraging and, over the years, we have had better days than bad days; and that encourages me. There is also the sheer passion to be a better chef, a better person and to grow as a business. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I feel validated in who I am as a person and as a chef that I want to start sharing my ideas with the world. I want to do things that are a bit more intimate in the New Year. Possibly start working on my first restaurant as well as putting myself in people’s homes because the Chef Fregz brand has quite an aspiring homey feel to it. I want to see how I can share myself with people in their homes, on their TV screens and in so many different ways.
What were the challenges you faced at the beginning? How about right now?
The challenges are the same. People never want to pay for the best and the problem of the Nigerian employee. I have a good team, but sometimes little things like paying attention to details is a big problem. The economy and the government does not make doing business easy either; sometimes, supplies are inconsistent, then the more you grow as a business, there is the issue of paying the government who does absolutely nothing for you. Clients and crazy deadlines are equally challenges coupled with the fact that ultimately, people never want to pay! Despite all these, we aren’t doing too badly. We are doing okay.
What is the place of getting an education in your line of business?
Haa… It is very important. Get an education, either formal, informal or both. I was privileged to go to Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Paris. I didn’t appreciate that education till much later because it was a very systematic way of taking me through what would have taken me many years of informal education to learn. It helped me understand the science behind why I do certain things, the science behind cooking techniques, when they were invented and so on. Beyond just learning about food, and probably more importantly, I got the opportunity to mix with other people like me, who saw food as the centre of their world. It was very encouraging and it also opened my eyes to see that I am not alone. An education also helps you look good and presentable; it gives you networking opportunities and it looks good on your CV! Nothing is lost by learning; we often pick up knowledge and skills that prepare us for where we need to get to.
There are so many catering companies out there. How have you been able to build yours up to what it is now? How profitable has it been and how have you been able to stay at the top of your game?
Wow! To the so many catering companies out there, the many iya alases and iya basiras, thank you for giving people like me hope; God bless you all, for paving the way. I started working at Oleander Catering in 2006; I equally worked at Protea hotel for a bit, but as regards building my own business, it has been God. I can’t tell you that I had enough knowledge at the time I started or that I even knew what branding was all about yet. People often tell me your brand is so great! Honestly, God is My P. I however chose to be original and different; I saw what people before me had done and I thought, “what new thing do I bring to the table?” For example, when I started finger foods, I decided not to do puff-puff and spring rolls, as finger food options, but explored other alternatives outside of the regular. Daring to be different made me stand out, and it paid off!
Regarding profitability, we are still looking for the profit *laughs out loud*. I mean that jokingly, though. It has been profitable. I have been able to do things that in a million years I never thought I could; I have made decent money, but I can make more. There is so much more potential and we still have a long way to go.
I have been able to stay at the top of my game because I am hungry. I am hungry, I am passionate, I am original. I am not in this for people to know my name, I am not in this because I have anything to prove.
Your meals usually look so yummy and scrumptious. How do you come up with concepts for your dishes? And how do you keep them fresh, because it can’t be easy having to go to the market every time you are to rustle up delicacies for different occasions?
Well, thank you first of all for saying my meals look scrumptious. How do I come up with good dishes? I Read, I Watch, I Learn. The food committee around the world is so big. I look up to a lot of international chefs. I am greatly inspired by them. Lately, there has been a push for the new Nigerian food movement too, which hopes to find ways to make Nigerian food more global. We love our food, but we are yet to have our own restaurants and our flavours celebrated around the world. I always think of how to make Nigeria look better on a plate; I think of flavours, I combine dream flavours, and I substitute ingredients that become new dishes.
Keeping the ideas and recipes fresh is hard because, I have to come up with new ideas every day; thankfully, I have some people who push my creativity. I am equally greatly inspired by the market, sometimes I have an idea for creating something new, I go to the market, see a fresh ingredient, and decide to do something new with it. Due to my potential to splurge in the market, I don’t like holding money. I could go to the market with a plan to buy 2 apples and come back with 600 different things!
How has the present economic situation in Nigeria affected you and your business? Has it in fact affected you? What keeps your hopes alive?
Well, what has affected us the most is pricing; we have to charge a bit more for our services, because everything has increased in price. But we thank God that we are in an industry that people can’t do without. We are blessed that people must eat and people – especially Nigerians – love to celebrate. Beyond these, God has said that, Gbubemi, you are meant to be in this business and in this business I am the Chairman, so I put my complete trust in him. Ironically, we grew in this period; we recorded new milestones, increased staff numbers, acquired more equipment, and we did more work!
We did more high-profile jobs and we launched a new product recently, the Fregzaporter; it has been an amazing 12 months plus for all of us. I did more traveling, I went for the Nigerian food tour, and I got to travel to a few states in America. We did quite a bit in 2016. Unfortunately, the economic situation has been felt more by our clients who must pay more for our services. But it’s the chauffeur’s experience.
There used to be the belief and stereotype in certain circles that catering and gourmet cooking jobs/roles are for women. What are your thoughts on that? Have you ever had to prove to others that you excel at this?
Well, this is really an African stereotype. When you think of top chefs internationally, you hear names like Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, Charlie Trotter, Paul Bucose and Marco Pierre White. These are all men. It’s so ironical that globally, the chef world is saturated by men. But in Nigeria, I think I have proven my point as a male chef. There are equally a number of male chefs now so much so the females feel intimidated, but I must add there are a few female chefs who are outstanding and exceptional; we call them the chef’s chef!
I really think the stereotype is dying slowly.
Besides your work/job, what other activities do you take on in your spare time? Do you have any community development/ faith-based initiatives you have been a part of and/or are looking to implement?
Well in my spare time, honestly, I try to rest. I try to sleep. I also try to spend time with family. On faith-based initiatives, there is something I wanted to start in 2016, but I couldn’t get around doing it. I believe men go through problems and difficult phases in life and God laid it on my heart to create an atmosphere/place where men can come and talk about their issues and most importantly, find solutions in the place of prayer. Whilst I am yet to get around bringing this to life, I often find myself doing a bible-study course from time to time and being a part of whatever church project that I can be a part of.
How would you describe what it means to be a man in light of the scriptures? What could be done better in order to build/ groom men of integrity who are faith-filled and still vibrant in their communities, workplace, and the marketplace?
To be a man in light of the scriptures, as a child of God and as a believer in Christ, you need to discover who you are in Christ and be centered in on that; you must equally understand what God has designed for you. We shouldn’t be filling any shoes of what the world thinks we should look like.
As men, there is the stereotype that you are meant to be rough and gruff, you are not supposed to cry, and you are not supposed to have feelings. You are not supposed to be a certain way, laugh a certain way; you are supposed to be macho… NO. Not every man is like that. Whoever you are in Christ, you need to understand and accept who God has called you to be. You need to understand that you are loved by God. Many men that are supposed to be men of God; children of Christ don’t realize how much Christ loves them and that is a problem. When you get that, your heart is more open to obedience to the Word. It’s really hard when you are already dedicated, but the flesh wants the best of you. When your heart is so sold out to the love of God and you understand how God is crazy about you, no matter the evil that might happen in your life, you are rest assured that he actually does love you and your experiences with him help to build your faith; it is a relationship!
For example, I have been learning faith in my walk with God; he dealt with me on money issues. Today, I have a big faith for money. For about 2 years, I’ve not worried about money. If I don’t have, praise God; if I ask a friend to loan me and he doesn’t have, praise God. When I saw God come through for me time after time on issues of money, I learnt to move on and believe Him for the next level. Like I start to believe him for marriage and for children. Before now I used to have questions like who would want to marry me? Because I had serious self-esteem issues. But now, I love myself so much that I count it a plus to the person that would marry me!
Sometimes we take these things for granted. Some people have actual issues bearing children and I’m not going to take it for granted that when I get married, I will have kids. I thank God already for the kids. Then raising good children that would not give you problems is another thing. But it all starts with knowing who you are. When you don’t know, you are similar to a BMW that doesn’t realize its worth and assumes it is a regular car. You are like a BMW designed to destroy and break boundaries. When you understand the kind of engine and specifications you are made of, you understand that you are pretty much limitless. You become so self-aware that when you need maintenance, you can always go back to your manufacturer to be updated and be maintained.
So, to remain vibrant in your community you need to understand that as a child of God, you are to make impact. You are not here to judge, nor lord your religion or your faith over someone else. You are here to love, to be an example, to encourage and when people ask you what your secret is, you tell them it is God. They may believe, they may not want to believe, but they should see that something is working for you and something is different about you.
How would you advise boys and other young men who aspire to build a career in your profession?
My advice to young boys and men looking to build a career in the culinary industry is very simple; once you are certain it is your dream and you are sure it is what God wants for you, go for it! Pick up books; read, read and bombard yourself with knowledge. Work at a restaurant to get to a culinary school and start to climb your ladder; you can even start to mop floors till you are an executive chef one day! Keep moving.
Which books are you currently reading, and why? What’s your favourite scripture, and why?
I’m not reading any books right now. At this time of the year, I only read the menu and invoices. *chuckles*
My favourite scriptures right now are Gal. 5:1 which talks about not being yoked again to the slavery of sin because Christ came so that we would not be burdened by the yoke of our sins; Isaiah 59:1 – the arm of the Lord is not cut short to deliver you of all your tribulations; 1 John 4:18 – perfect love casteth out fear, and 1 Cor 13: 5 – love holds no record of wrongs.
Any other thing you would like to discuss/talk about/ add?
I have pretty much said everything, I really want to thank you all for taking out time to interview me, and I’ll just like to add that becoming a man is becoming centered on who you are and understanding what God has designed for you, understanding what he says that you are as a person and waking up every day improving on that person. It is like a painting, and God’s directions do not deceive; they don’t steer you off the right course. People may say “how does God speak to you?”; keep talking to Him until you hear Him and understand His voice. Don’t close your Bible. I have been in a season where my Bible was closed and I was expecting God to speak. When my Bible is closed and I don’t know what to discuss with Him, I tend to be a lamenting child as opposed to a child who is supposed to be talking to his Father with wisdom. So, wisdom is profitable to direct and I just want every young man as they start the New Year to search inwards, everything that is not of God, take it to God’s feet and He will deal with it.
- Featured Image via BellaNaija.com
- Other images as provided by Chef Fregz