When Ayo Balogun was a teenager spending the summer cooking with his grandmother in Western Nigeria’s Kwara State, his uncle took him out for an exciting night in the country’s capital Lagos, living it up at all sorts of restaurants, from dive bars to posh clubs.
“It was just one night. And I’ve been trying to recreate that evening since then. It’s like, you’re always chasing that thing,” he said.
Now in Brooklyn, after moving to the US in 1998, Balogun is the chef of the Department of Culture, one of the hottest new restaurants in New York, praised for its warm atmosphere, heart-warming dishes and mission of introducing regional Nigerian cuisine to American palates. The tiny restaurant located in a former barber shop was listed as one of the Best New Restaurants of 2022 by Eater and has been shortlisted for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, which will announce winners in June.
The Dept of Culture opened only a year ago in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, not far from the former Civil Service Café where Balogun organized his first pop-up dinners during the pandemic. (Balogun’s parents were civil servants, hence the name.) Tiny but elegant, the Department of Culture only has one communal table and a counter with four stools. It can host only 16 people a night, and it’s booked months in advance.
The restaurant, which has a fixed menu, is a BYOB establishment where guests share a meal and often more than one bottle that they bring from home. On a recent night, the first course was a dish called asaro, a deliciously textured porridge made with two kinds of yam – sweet potato and white yam tuber – and served with smoked shrimp and crayfish for a little extra kick. Balogun’s father ate it as a schoolboy in the 1950s, but Balogun himself didn’t like it as a child.