Èkó Kitchen Chef Entrepreneur Simileoluwa Adebajo Brings Nigerian Flavors and Culture to SF
A five-alarm fire burned San Francisco’s first Nigerian restaurant, Èkó Kitchen, to the ground in July 2020.
Founder and chef Simileoluwa Adebajo, who had just moved into the building a week prior to resume her original takeout and delivery-only model as the pandemic raged around her, lost everything.
The one-two punch would be enough to scare off any newbie restaurateur from a business, but not Simileoluwa Adebajo.
“I always try to find a silver lining,” she says, and there were plenty to find: donations from supporters started pouring in, Eko found a new home in the kitchen of Merkadothe Mexican restaurant and outdoor market focused on tequila and mezcal in South Beach, and Adebajo discovered SF New Deal, the non-profit organization that put restaurants closed by Covid to work feeding those in need. She now sits on its board of directors.
“SF New Deal felt like it was the missing key to finding fulfillment in my business,” says Adebajo. “I was able to deliver 12,000 to 15,000 meals to vulnerable people. I would give all my energy, all my time, to know that the food I was cooking had a meaningful impact.
Modern Nigerian cuisine from Èkó Kitchen.(Reed Davis)
The humanitarian work she’s done in San Francisco over the past two years is just one of the new ventures keeping her occupied now, as Adebajo is as much an entrepreneur as she is a chef, and her star is rising rapidly.
Adebajo’s second business venture, whipped ori, a skin and hair care company co-founded with childhood friend Bimpe Abiru, was born out of necessity. When she moved from Nigeria to the United States in 2016 for a master’s degree in international economics, Adebajo expected to be able to walk into any pharmacy to find shea butter, an essential natural beauty product in her home. But every jar she picked up was full of chemicals and her skin suffered. So she started whipping up her own, adding an aromatic kick with essential oils like lavender, tea tree, and peppermint.
“The way it made my skin glow and hydrated my hair, I’ve never seen it look so good,” she recalls. “Before you know it, I said ‘I’m going to start selling this and I’m going to call it ori’, which means shea butter [in Yoruba].”
Now a third company, aperitif, a lifestyle brand of bags, baskets and other products handwoven by artisans in Lagos, is in the works. Together they are the foundation of a budding empire built around the pillars of nourishing food, natural ingredients and caring for the most vulnerable members of society.
To balance his time between his projects, Adebajo strategically decided to stop operating Èkó Kitchen as a restaurant. But she’s in no way abandoning the business that brought her national attention. Instead, Èkó will focus on feeding the community, which has brought him great fulfillment over the past two years. She will also continue to operate as a private chef and caterer, hosting events like the upcoming Afrocentric “Homecoming” dinner at Merkado on Feb. 18 (6-10 p.m.) and teaching her popular pop-up. Cooking classincluding ones she holds virtually during Black History Month (from $50/person).
(Courtesy of Eko Kitchen)
For those who can’t make it to an event, there’s Adebajo’s new cookbook, From Èkó with love.
“I like to use three words [to describe Nigerian food]: fat, tasty and spicy. Our dishes are meant to take you to one extreme or the other in terms of flavor,” she says. “Nigerian cuisine is hot but it is also complex because for most dishes you get more than one flavor profile – smoky, salty, sour, spicy, sweet – there are several things going on at once. .”
The cookbook is full of modern Nigerian recipes, many of which have been perfected at the restaurant, including popular dishes like jollof rice and asun (spicy, roasted goat) with sweet potatoes and plantains.
Chances are this is just the beginning for this chef and entrepreneur with the rare ability to turn an idea from dream to reality.
“I love watching other black women I’ve seen go down this trajectory. Rhianna is one of them. Rhianna went from being a musician, she started a skincare business, a lingerie business , and is now a multi-billionaire,” says Adebajo. “I’m like, why not? I’m going to do my best to keep growing.”