Say Hello To Your New Favourite Cakebaker, Food Stylist, And All-Around Joy!
Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Baker, Food Stylist, and Recipe Writer Benjamina Ebuehi to talk about one of my favourite subjects, food! It’s not only the very thing that gives us the energy we need to create and live but it’s also one of the most primal joys we experience. Not to mention its endless ability to act as a vehicle for culture, history, and storytelling. You’d be amazed at how many racist people I’ve met who hate Mexican people but love Mexican food, which gives me hope that will one day see the people and culture behind the food with that same love!
What do you do for work at the moment?
So currently I am, well, I call it a Freelance Food Creative. It’s probably the best umbrella term because it’s a lot of this and a bit of that. So day to day it’s like, recipe writing and development, which means working with PR agencies and brands for social media content. Food styling, which is really fun. Quite niche, but loads of behind the scenes stuff that I absolutely love. It’s very creative and gives me the chance to play around with food. Also, baking, just in general. For fun, I do try to squeeze in some baking into my personal life.
What first got you into food and wanting to work with it?
Well, I’ve always just loved food and eating. It’s just fun. Like, good food is amazing. And my Mum cooked a lot of Nigerian food growing up. So I’d always be in the kitchen watching, helping, eating, I was just very present. But I think as I got older, I enjoyed having cooking as my creative outlet because I’ve got a twin sister who has always been great at drawing and it felt a bit like, “Oh, she’s the creative one!” and I was more just book smart. But food is really creative and it turns out I’m creative in that way. Which was a fun way to outwork things and experiment.
And then I was drawn to baking because I’ve always had a sweet tooth but my Mum doesn’t bake at all. Even in the whole of Nigerian cuisine, there are just very few baked goods and even fewer desserts. So my mom got me a few kids cookbooks and I slowly worked my way through them and the love just stayed. It was constant, always trying new things. As I got older I shifted from just cookbooks to more food blogs and Pinterest and Instagram, just being so immersed in that world. Then I started my own blog just to keep my recipes in one place and a fun thing to do. It just grew from there!
But I never saw it as something I would do full time. I always viewed it as a fun hobby but because I knew I didn’t want to work as a traditional chef in a restaurant kitchen. I didn’t see a way forward in food for me. I just thought, well what else could I do with this other than a hobby? And until I took part in The Great British Bake Off the answer was always nothing. But after Bake Off, I realised, “Wait, there are a lot more opportunities in food than I realised!”
There are a lot of ways of approaching food. Some chefs approach food conceptually, some see it as a vehicle for culture, and others are simply focused on what looks and tastes good. I don’t think there’s any wrong way of approaching food in this but I’m curious, what would you say your approach to food is?
I’m less concerned with the conceptual side. The food I love, love, love (apart from Nigerian food which is what I grew up eating) is middle eastern food. Like I’m obsessed with it. It’s totally my jam. Love to cook it. Love to eat it. So, for me, it’s more about incorporating food from such bold flavours and countries. I really don’t like the word fusion but I do love the idea of borrowing bits and pieces from cooking and cultures that I enjoy and using them to create something new. So my approach to food is much more, this is what I’ve tasted, this is what I’ve loved, please come have a try!
In this day and age, I’d be remiss if I didn’t follow up with a question asking where you draw the line between borrowing from what you find in other culture’s cooking and outright cultural appropriation. How do you handle that in your personal and professional approach to food?
I don’t know how this will sound, hopefully not horrible! But I would say that I feel I have a bit of leeway in regards to this because I’m not white. I certainly encounter less scrutiny over it. If I’m honest, I probably rely on that a little too much and haven’t necessarily given it the thought it deserves so it’s really good actually to be having conversations like these! Without them, we’d never confront the things that are borderline problematic.
I appreciate the honesty and I can totally see where you’re coming from. For me, I think as long as someone has put in the time and effort to properly research the dish, the culture it was borne out of, and understands the context in which it was originally received then it’s difficult to appropriate it. Because, it seems to me, to appropriate something is less about using techniques and more about making the focus of the dish about yourself in place of the people and culture it originally came from.
Oh yeah. I agree. It’s definitely about taking the time to learn and understand instead of just rocking up grabbing a bit of this and a bit of that and acting like you’ve invented something totally original. As well as making sure you’re not inadvertently silencing the voices of those people who are likely in a better position to put this food forward for people. It’s definitely a balance.
So you’re involved in quite a few different food-based projects and ventures. For instance, you were a quarter-finalist in The 2016 Great British Bake Off, you’ve co-founded The Sister Table with your sister, you’re an ambassador for Luminary Bakery, your first baking book was recently released, among many other ventures! How do all these different projects sort of fit into your work life?
From the beginning, I wanted my career in food to be bigger than just one thing. I didn’t want it to be just a really great Instagram feed followed by a few books. And I’ve always been passionate about women so women in food was a perfect fit. Like how do we empower and encourage women both in the food industry and through food itself? I just think food is such a good tool to empower people.
The Ambassadorship with Luminary Bakery came sort of randomly. Like, I followed them on social media way before Bake Off, just loving what they were doing. And then, after Bake Off, I liked a few of their posts and they recognised me from the show. Because they knew who I was we connected. I went down for a little look, took a tour of the bakery, I met the founder. And I just fell more in love with what they’re doing. The founder is amazing! And I just kept getting more involved with them so when they wanted an Ambassador it just made sense.
Seeing the work they do there and watching some of the women who would come on the course who had been through some really tough times finding such confidence in themselves through baking, like just that satisfying feeling of, “I made that!” as they stared down at their bread, it was incredible. Much more than a good loaf of bread, that’s what baking can really do!
Then The Sister Table was a project that started on a much more personal level. Like, me and my sister love hosting friends for dinner. And we go all out! Just bringing friends together from all sorts of different backgrounds and cultures and people loved it. So we thought, hmm, you know we could make this bigger than just our table. We could make this a much larger experience and invite more women to come to sit and eat with us. To have those intimate and encouraging conversations, to laugh, and just leave everything on the table.
And knowing how much loneliness there is for women in a city like London, I mean I know we’re all connected online but not really. And that kind of opportunity to meet with other women completely outside of any agenda, it’s not about business, it’s not about networking, it’s just about being present and engaged with some really amazing food and even more amazing people. We wanted women to know that, above all else, they’d just have a really good time at our events.
So far it’s been going really well. We’ve been going for about a year and a half now. We’ve mainly focused on brunch. Like, supper clubs are cool — I LOVE supper clubs — but my sister isn’t really a foodie in the traditional sense so she’s more like, “What in the world is a supper club?” which I think is really good because it helps keep everything balanced and grounded so when I sometimes go too far or really get ahead of myself she can be there to say, “Normal people will NOT know what that is!” which is a massive help. But we’ve found that brunch is less formal, it’s a lot more relaxed, you don’t have to dress up, and we can charge less for the tickets because it’s brunch. And we really want this event to be accessible for women in our community, women who look like us.
Like when I go out to supper clubs in London I’m a rarity as a woman of colour in general but even rarer as a black woman specifically. And so much of that culture can feel like it’s all echoing each other. So we thought we could do this without worrying too much about being cool or pretentious, appealing to women who probably have never been to a supper club or brunch club. To provide an accessible way into community with other women where you can be yourself and have a good time.
And so far that’s primarily who we see coming along. It’s about 80% women of colour, usually people who haven’t been to anything like this outside of our events, many of them come alone, which we were surprised about because people often come in pairs so they know they’ll have someone to talk to but then creates the problem of people speaking only with the friends they came with. But we’re glad we spent time making sure this was an event where coming alone wouldn’t leave anyone feeling lonely.
You’re clearly a very confident and accomplished individual in the food industry but have you found being a woman a struggle considering the historical baggage of the patriarchy that says, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen!” as a way of subjugating rather than empowering women?
Ooh, that’s a good question! I do think that women in food have more hurdles to overcome than men. They’re seen more as, “Oh, you’re a cook really, not a chef.” But I consider myself really fortunate in that I don’t really have to worry about that very often. For most of my regular projects, the teams are all women and we create a culture that’s very complimentary and cognisant of, “This is what we’re good at and what we enjoy doing!” Plus, for better or worse, we don’t have many male voices telling us what to do so that issue never even comes up, which in many ways is ideal.
If you’d like to know more about Benjamina Ebuehi, you can check out her blog, Carrot & Crumb, you can buy her book, The New Way To Cake, and you can follow along with her latest adventures on social media! I thought it only fitting, especially during these trying times, to leave you with this final pearl of wisdom from Benjamina, “When in doubt, choose cake!”