One hot afternoon in October, Desola and I were in the office doing what we normally do – muse aloud about hunger and lunch plans. Because we’re foodies…Don’t judge. Okay? She had seen a recommendation on the Eat Drink Lagos Twitter feed about some new place close to our office, and suggested we try it out. I snorted, but grudgingly agreed to follow her there. It was a first for both of us, so I wasn’t going to bash her too much if it turned out to be a bad experience.

We left HSE Gourmet cafe very HAPPY and full of praises for whoever was behind this beautiful place. The space is tastefully decorated, and it’s small enough to give you the feeling that you’re right at home.

Chef Nkesi Enyioha is the brain behind that little place. She is one of five children; born and raised in Port Harcourt. She studied Law Because, y’all best believe lawyers rock! After working as a lawyer for a few years, she decided she wanted to be a chef. She then hopped on a plane and off she was, to get her diploma from Ashburton Cookery School in Devon. After having her first child in 2011, she started HSE Gourmet Cuisine. {named after her son Hekaire Sebastien Enyioha}

Since then, she has worked as a private chef, and the Cafe we visited is the newest addition to the HSE Group.

In my chat with her, I asked about keeping up standards, surviving in this current economy and her plans for the next few years. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed eating the Jambalaya chicken at the cafe.

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Have you always wanted to set up your own restaurant?
Yes, it had always been part of my 10 year plan. Whilst I still plan on adding the term restaurateur to the list of my accomplishments, I decided to start with something small (HSE Café) and work my way up.

How would you describe HSE Gourmet Cuisine?
HSE Gourmet Cuisine is a food service company, offering private chef and outdoor catering services. We also just recently added HSE Café located at Arabella’s Place – Plot 2, Block 82 Emma Abimbola Cole, Lekki Phase 1. Our café offers delicious gourmet comfort meals, inspired by my travels around the world and right here at home.

How long did it take to bring HSE Gourmet Cuisine to fruition? From conceptualizing to actualizing your dreams?
The journey so far has been about 6 years, though I have had the idea of it for over 10 years now. The café idea I decided on about a year ago and I’m extremely lucky to have thought it through and have it be a reality today.

Tell us about some of the challenges you had setting up what we see today?
It has indeed been a long road though we are still on the journey. I constantly face the challenge of getting people to know that I’m out there and to understand what it is I actually do. There was also the issue of financing, getting the bigger investors to believe in a small business like mine. There are also little hassles here and there, like sourcing of ingredients, preserving foodstuff etc.

It can be said that the food and hospitality industry is Lagos (particularly, Lekki) is saturated, what inspired your decision to start a restaurant in Lagos?
Well, I actually don’t think the industry is saturated, compared to other cities in the world with about the same population as Lagos. I think the problem is, especially with Lekki, that there are a lot of restaurants doing the same thing, and that is where my inspiration came from; the need to offer something different. I also feel there is a lot of room for more of us to open more restaurants, because we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.

How did you handle the financing of getting the restaurant off the ground?
Luckily for me, I have a loving supportive family and with that I was able to cross this particular hurdle.

What is the niche you set out to carve out for the HSE Gourmet Cuisine brand?
What sets us apart is our love for bringing to the public something deliciously different. We are definitely that brand that will make you try something you thought you’d hate and now you absolutely love. We also want the world to see us as that Nigerian brand with very high standards that will never compromise our quality under any circumstance. We are truly inspired by the world’s vibrant cuisine and we refuse to be put in a box as to what kind of food we make.
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What’s the current staff strength of the restaurant?
About 7-10 depending on the season as we do have contract staff.

Do you have a special process for recruitment? Do you have any incentives to reduce staff turn over
I usually outsource to a recruitment agency, but personally I always look for pleasant and ambitious people. I find that they want the business to succeed as much as you do. As regards to incentives, I make my employees stakeholders of my organization and they also get a bonus on their salary if they show exceptional work ethics.

One of my favourite experiences at the HSE Cafe was one evening when my friends and I went for dinner. We were there way past the closing time. Your staff displayed such professionalism. They waited for us – not in a cranky Nigerian staff way. In fact, the guy who waited behind to lock up asked the others to go home…and he lived the furthest. You rarely see such display of actual hospitality in the hospitality business in Nigeria. What do you think sets HSE apart?
Wow, thanks a lot. That’s a lovely compliment. I have to say that I’ve been highly favoured. I think the most important thing is that, they see/hear my dreams and aspirations. They see my work ethic and ultimately they hope to be in my position someday or even better. This allows them to listen when I lay the groundwork of what they need to do to achieve their dreams and aspirations.

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Now let’s talk about the business side of things.The restaurant currently sits approximately 15 people. How do you manage the nuances of running a specialized bistro/specialized cafe business in Lagos (given the current economic climate)?
The size of the café allows the customers to feel cozy and comfortable – adequately warming them up before the meals are presented. So far, we have had generally positive reviews and for areas where customers make complaints we try to review and address these areas. Word-of-mouth referrals have been favourable – this has been our most successful advertisement medium yet…as well as exploiting the various social media platforms. The staff are engaged with the values of good customer service, integrity and excellence and we hope this permeates through the customer’s time there to make a delightful HSE Café experience.

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What steps do you take to ensure that running the restaurant is economically viable?
Well, we try to look inwards for most of our products, using locally farmed fresh ingredients cost less than imported items. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to rely solely on locally sourced ingredients. I also find that having multiple streams of income does help; and that is what HSE Gourmet Cuisine as a whole does with the Café, product line, private chef services and outdoor catering.

What are the highlights of running the cafe in the short time you’ve had
I consider my restaurant my playground; it affords me the opportunity to be as creative as I would like, no restrictions. I also loved the fact that I can feed people my creation and see the smile on their faces. It’s a remarkable feeling.

You recently started a Vlog series (where you featured your son) What are your thoughts on the current discussion on gender stereotypes in Nigeria with regards cooking as a required life skill as opposed to one being perpetuated as a woman only venture?dd858893-42e7-43ca-a5b7-5944688fca03-428x600
I honestly feel that all basic skills are a requirement for both genders. I also happen to be a self proclaimed feminist and I make sure I raise my son to know that he will have no special privileges as a result of his gender. Every human being of age should know how to cook; I consider it a survival skill.

So where do you see Nkesi and HSE Gourmet Cuisine in the next 5 years?
In 5 years I intend to have established sufficient reputation amongst my peers in the culinary business and to be influential in the development of the budding food industry. Hopefully, we can make the industry appealing enough to attract more individual and corporate stakeholders. For HSE Gourmet Cuisine, we intend to be a household name in the food value chain – from food, to retail products on shelves, to even cooking utensils and kitchen. The options are limitless!

So, Chef Nkesi recommends…What are your top 3 recommended items on the HSE menu
Herbed pasta, Grouper fillet with a black bean salsa and Double prime beef burger. Our drinks are awesome too… just throwing that in there. Hahahaha

Let’s relax a little
What are three things you have an irrational fear of
Snakes, gas leaks and being burgled.

I’m terrified of gas leaks too! What’s your guilty pleasure?
Musicals and chocolate covered nuts

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Hahaha! You’re just saying that to make me happy. Okay, if you won a billion dollars today, what’s the first thing you’d do?
A billion dollars is a whole lot so let’s just refer to this as excess money …{Laughs} Well I’ve always been passionate about children and as you know I’m a ‘foodie” so I would use part of the money to start a charitable foundation to ensure that we feed as many kids as we can. No kid should go hungry. Then I’ll reinvest the rest of it in my business, maybe open another HSE Café in my hometown of Port Harcourt.

Source: BellaNaija

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