Tunde Wey gets ready to serve plantains and Jollof rice at his pop-up Nigerian dinner in the kitchen of Toki Underground, a ramen restaurant in Washington, D.C., in December 2014.
Photo: Eliza Barclay/NPR

Most aspiring chefs long for the white hat, the gleaming kitchen, the fancy menu.

But Nigeria-born Tunde Wey stumbled into a different version of the (American) chef's dream. He wanted to see the country and share the food of his West African childhood with friends and strangers along the way.

So a few months ago, he packed up his knives and his spices at his home in Detroit and started crisscrossing the U.S. by Greyhound bus.

He wowed diners in New Orleans, Chicago and Buffalo with his one-man pop-up dinner events, Lagos, named after his hometown in Nigeria. He cooked his way up and down the East Coast.

Word got around. His one-night cooking gigs began selling out.

But then, like many immigrants to the U.S., Tunde Wey discovered how quickly success can come tumbling down.

I caught up with him the day he was preparing dinner in Washington, D.C., and getting rhapsodic about his ingredients.

"Palm oil is like the sexier, more full-bodied oil to, like, regular cooking oil," he tells me. "It just has soul, you know."

Wey is kind of like a traveling showman. For every dinner party he throws in a new city, he has to scramble to find, and then borrow, a space. Sometimes it's a restaurant, sometimes it's a communal kitchen where food entrepreneurs smoke and bake and boil their wares.

On the day we meet up, he has taken over a restaurant called Toki Underground. Its stove usually has broth and ramen noodles simmering on it, but Wey has replaced them with a huge vat of goat head stew.

Word got around. His one-night cooking gigs began selling out.

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