A suitcase arrives in Los Angeles every month from Nigeria. Its contents include suya spice blend, dried hibiscus, shito paste, and other raw ingredients destined for chef Tolu Erogbogbo’s kitchen in Hollywood. Here, he and business partner David Olusoga run a West African pop-up called Ilé. The dinners are a deeply personal expression of the flavors Erogbogbo grew up with. “I want to know where I’m buying my spices from,” says Erogbogbo, who goes by Eros. He adds that everything he sources is sustainably farmed from local villages around his hometown, Lagos, a metropolis as expansive as Los Angeles and currently Africa’s second-most populous city. The chef admits that some of the ingredients could be sourced in Southern California, but after years spent traveling the world and cooking out of a suitcase, it’s not only how he’s used to doing things, it’s become part of his story.
Eros never formally studied cooking, but after finishing a degree in international business management in the U.K. at 21, he opened a French pastry shop in Lagos. Within a few years, he opened a second restaurant and had a roster of clients that included many members of the country’s elite. Though his lightning-fast rise to success led to the Billionaire Chef moniker, with an appearance on CNN for his cooking, he always felt the need to leave Nigeria. “There was something outside that I was looking for. I never felt satisfied just being at home — being what we’d call a ‘local champion,’” says Eros. In 2017 he commenced his travels through Dubai, Europe, and around the United States. At each new location, he’d rent a house, gather a few friends together, cook for the group, have them throw in some money to cover dinner costs, and then travel on. The pandemic put a pause on this nomadic moving feast, but in the summer of 2021, Eros was itching to travel again.
“I packed a whole suitcase of marinades, spices, and sauces, and headed for the U.S.,” he said. At first, he planned to only hit three cities, get a house when he arrived, cook for friends, and repeat the model he’d been perfecting, but the trip soon turned into 13 dinners across seven cities in three months. By the end of the journey — with stops in New York, Atlanta, Houston, and more — Eros knew he had to stay in America, and in Los Angeles specifically. “I landed in LA and it felt like home,” Eros said. “The energy, the sun, the vibe.” But Eros’s visa was about to expire, and the thought of returning to Lagos “literally depressed me,” he continues. “I couldn’t leave my room for two days, because it felt like I was going backwards. How do I continue forward?”
After speaking with an immigration attorney, he learned that an O-1 visa (a special nonimmigrant visa only granted to an “alien of extraordinary ability,” according to the USCIS) seemed like the best way to stay in the U.S., but Eros’s current visa had just a few days left on it, and the O-1 could take a year or more to get. “I said to God, ‘If this is meant to be, you would make it stress-free,’” he recalls. “I would not have to beg or cry for anything to make this happen.” His prayer was answered: The new visa came through within a month.
But if Eros was going to stay for real this time, he needed a plan, something bigger than a few pop-up dinners with friends. He wanted to replicate in Los Angeles the success he had achieved in Lagos, but he needed a partner who could help him in this new market and who also shared his dreams.
Olusoga moved west from New York almost a decade ago to follow his passion for food. The laid-back approach to dining in LA attracted him, as did the diversity of cuisines and the freshness of Southern California’s produce. The Nigerian-born, Queens-raised banker wanted to open a restaurant of his own, and Los Angeles felt like the right place to do that. He had tried a few ideas with some chefs, and even cooked himself, but nothing seemed to stick. Then, earlier this year, Olusoga was at a party when a friend introduced him to Erogbogbo.
“We literally spoke the whole night, and two days later I invited him over to my place for lunch,” Eros says with a laugh. It quickly became clear that each had found the partner he was looking for.
In April, the two opened Ilé, their Nigerian chef’s table experience, operating out of Eros’s live-work space in Hollywood. “There’s just something about a real chef’s table, about being in a chef’s home and feeling the essence of him,” Eros says, adding that “my brain works differently in that kitchen than it’s ever done anywhere else.”
Anyone familiar with Nigerian cuisine won’t feel lost at one of Eros and Olusoga’s dinners. The jollof rice with fried chicken is a standout, as is the pepper soup with snapper. Both are deeply complex and aromatic dishes that fully embrace the robust flavors of Nigerian cuisine. Every bite here sings on multiple notes — sweet, spicy, crunchy, gooey, smokey. Eros mixes yaji peppers into several dishes without ever making it overpowering. His ewa agoyin turns the popular black bean-based street food into a garri-crusted fritter that balances rich umami with a sweet palm oil sauce. A night at Ilé is more than just the food; it’s an introduction to Nigerian culture and music, and to Eros’s own life story. It’s a table that creates a community.
And word has spread. In the short time that Ilé has been open, it’s already become a destination for actors, musicians, and others in the know. A recent night saw actress Billie Lourde at one seating, and Grammy-nominated artist Jidenna at another. “Chef Eros and the Ilé team put together a magical presentation of Nigerian fusion,” Jidenna says of the dinner that blends “traditional tastes and modern accents.” It also “brings a swanky Afropolitan scene to LA,” he says, which complements the recent rise in “Afrobeats and Amapiano music in LA’s nightlife.”
It’s a link not lost on Olusoga. For him, the new generation of Nigerians who grew up in the U.S. are becoming directors, musicians, executives. “I think it’s about time that some of the great things about our world come into a certain class of people and they get to see us in a certain light,” he notes. If Nigerian cuisine has traditionally been relegated to the mom-and-pop shop, Ilé wants to bring it into the mainstream.
For that reason, Ilé won’t stay a pop-up forever. Olusoga and Eros are already planning to open a permanent, physical restaurant. “He has big dreams,” Olusoga says of Eros. “But the way I’m thinking of it is to be in LA and have the city embrace us first and show that love.”
For now, find Ilé on Tock. Dinners take place on Thursdays and Fridays, with two seatings, one at 5:30 p.m. that is a four-course menu for $120. The second seating is a nine-course menu at 7:30 p.m. for $250. Both seatings are BYOB, with plans to expand to more nights by summer.
Ilé, 1312 Cole Avenue, Hollywood.