Vibe Out: Chef Kavachi broadens Houston culinary experience with West African cuisine
Written by Nakia Cooper on November 1, 2020
HOUSTON – Nigerian born and Houston raised, Kavachi Ukegbu, is determined to bring West African cuisine mainstream.
As a child, Kavachi worked in her mother’s establishment, Safari Restaurant, which is Houston’s first longest running Nigerian restaurant.
“I never expected to be a chef,” she said while standing over a pot of Jollof Rice. “I grew up in the kitchen so that was the farthest thing from my mind. I originally went to school for fashion merchandising and business marketing.”
So what changed?
How did this business savvy fashion major allow her dreams to be awakened by the allure of a pot and a cooking apron?
To answer that, we would need to go back in time to her sophomore year of college.
“I decided to take an international hospitality and beverage class and it reminded me of how much I loved international cuisine. I started to recall all of the international marketplaces that I visited as a child. The smells, the colors, and I became excited about food again,” she said.
Kavachi changed her major and graduated with a degree in culinary hospitality marketing. Upon graduation, she soon found herself back at Safari, but this time she immersed herself in her mother’s recipes and started to perfect her own techniques. She continued with the traditional dishes such as garnish snails, Egusi soup, goat head and cow leg, but cultivated the menu by adding Abacha with fish, Ugba with Nkwobi, and her most notable dish, FuFu.
“Perfecting my FuFu technique became my passion. It’s not easy to get people to try new things but FuFu is an easy introductory dish to West African foods,” she said. “I knew that if I was able to make it look as good as it tasted, that this could be an item that I could get anyone to try.”
And try they did!
Kavachi was finally able to put her business degree to work by brokering a partnership with Whole Foods Market to demo her food items. The monthly food demonstrations helped Kavachi reach a new demographic and a larger audience of food lovers.
“I did not expect the response at all, but it was definitely welcomed. It helped to confirm what I knew all along about the need for more variety throughout the Houston diaspora,” she said.
Not one to become complacent, Kavachi decided to take her FuFu demos to the next level by creating “The Art of FuFu” pop-up. The bi-monthly interactive events allow guests to enjoy live music, art, African culture and FuFu cooking demonstrations and tastings.
“Our first event was 30 people, then we had 50 people and eventually 150 people,” an excited Kavachi said. “Everyone wanted to get recipes to learn and try to cook the dishes on their own, so I thought, ‘hmmm, how about a cookbook?’”
The international community was getting to know Chef Kavachi, and so was the rest of the world.
Kavachi was featured on the PBS television show, “No Passport Required,” and the “Houston Cookbook,” in addition to other local and national cooking shows.
She was also in the process of traveling back and forth to Nigeria to gather recipes and artwork for The Art of Fufu cookbook when tragedy struck.
“I don’t think any of us could have imagined that the COVID-19 pandemic would come and completely change our lives the way that it did. First, the restaurant closed, and then I was forced to stop production on the cookbook. It’s hard to explain seeing everything that you have worked for over the past 10 years disappear in as little as a month.” Kavachi said solemnly.
But no storm lasts forever.
As the quarantine began to lift and the restaurants started to reopen, Safari welcomed back its customers, and the smell of spices and FuFu started to fill the air once more.
“Although I was excited that the restaurant was doing well again, I was sad about the cookbook because I didn’t have the money to finish it,” she said.
Determined to not let anything get in her way, Kavachi took to social media and started a Kickstarter campaign.
“I gave myself 25 days to raise $25,000,” she explained. “I said to myself, ‘this is it 25 days at $1,000 a day, that’s all you have.’ I set that goal and refused to give myself any more time. I made a promise to myself right then and there.”
In 25 days, The Art of FuFu cookbook raised $25,568.
“I screamed, I literally ran around the restaurant screaming. I just couldn’t believe it,” she said while greeting a restaurant guest. Her demeanor suddenly changed. “Every time I see someone walk in, I think of all of the other restaurants that couldn’t open due to COVID-19. It’s bittersweet, you know?”
The international food community was hit harder than most because they are niche businesses.
“We are the restaurants that you come to when you want to try something different or when there is an international food festival, but it’s not necessarily your go-to unless you were raised eating it every day,” Kavachi shared.
Family and food has become everything to Kavachi, and it became impossible for her to sit back and watch as her fellow restaurateurs continued to close their doors one by one.
“I decided to host a food and vendor pop-up for the international food community,” she said.
On November 21, The Art of FuFu will host its first pop-up at Politan Row, located at 2445 Times Blvd. in Houston. Food lovers will be able to come and enjoy their favorite dishes from their favorite chefs and, of course, social distancing will be highly enforced.
This will be the first event from The Art of FuFu brand since the COVID pandemic hit.
“I will never stop working to expose as many people as I can to international culture and cuisine. I really believe that it is my calling,” the innovative chef said. “When I see someone try a new dish for the first time, it’s like watching a baby take its first steps. It’s my joy.”
If you are looking to expand your palate and try something new, stop by and experience the taste of West Africa with Chef Kavachi. Safari Restaurant, which is located at 10014 Bissonet St., is currently open for walk-ins and also delivery.