Mr. Ojo has delighted diplomats and other dignitaries with his culinary gift. In presidential circles, he’s revered as the go-to chef for authentic West African cooking.
Yet, describing him as unassuming is an understatement. In his presence, it’s difficult not to notice how surprisingly meek and modest he is (among friends and family, he’s simply known as “Ajasco.”)
So when Mr. Ojo sat down to reflect on his remarkable career, his “quiet” confidence and unwavering commitment became apparent.
Born and bred in Nigeria, West Africa, Ojo began his “accidental” culinary career in Paris. “I didn’t really set out to be a chef.” But while working as a personal butler to Ambassador Leslie Harriman in the 1970s, he developed a passion for cooking. His boss enjoyed french cuisine so much that he taught Ojo how to cook several dishes from his favorite restaurants. “Harriman would go to fine french restaurants and ask the chefs for recipes. Then he would stop at the supermarket, buy all the ingredients and teach me how to make them at home. The first few times weren’t too good but I kept trying until the dishes were perfect.” Through practice, his passion for cooking was born. And while he enjoyed experimenting with many recipes, his favorite dish to make back then was “Bourguignon.” Within only a few short years, he honed his culinary skills and officially became Harriman’s personal Chef.
Several years later, when Harriman became a U.N Ambassador in New York, he made Mr. Ojo the Head Chef of the Nigerian mission. And over the course of 30 years, his signature dishes became synonymous with authentic Nigerian cuisine. From presidents to prime ministers, everyone raved about “Ajayi’s Jollof Rice, beef stew, and Okra soup,” just to name a few. However, his most unforgettable compliment came from a former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo. “When President Obasanjo came to town, I cooked for him. He enjoyed my soup so much that it got all over his clothes! He called me over and said, Ajayi, because your Okra soup is so good, i’ve messed up my clothes!” But for Ojo, the icing on the cake was when the President honored him with a national award in 2005. “That was more than the highlight of my career. It was one of the best moments of my life- only second to the day I married my wife.”
Now retired, Mr. Ojo looks back on his career with sincere gratitude. “If I had the chance to do it all over again, i’d still be a chef. I got to meet so many talented people from around the world.” But his deepest gratitude comes from a second chance at life. When he was diagnosed with kidney cancer last July, his fate was uncertain. “When I found out, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be.” But thankfully, he was successfully treated with surgery. And after several months in recovery, he’s now ready to get back in the kitchen!
For many years, his devoted friends and fans encouraged him to start his own catering company. However, the timing wasn’t right. Now that he’s retired (and in remission), he’s more than ready to give them what they’ve been asking for. So this spring, “Ajasco” will open it’s doors to African food enthusiasts in the New York /New Jersey region. And Ojo will be serving up the same V.I.P service that made him so popular: When asked what he most looks forward to, he simply said, “cooking my customers’ favorite dishes!” Bon appétit!
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