Since moving to New York in 1997, Ayo Balogun has cooked his way through Italian deli classics, Indian recipes and nouveau British dishes, all the while dreaming of showcasing the cuisine of his native Nigeria.
A restless restaurateur, Mr. Balogun, 45, opened three Brooklyn eateries — The Civil Service Café, The Bureau Café and Trade Union Diner — between 2013 and 2022, but his big hit came in 2022 when he opened Dept of Culture near his apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Our guests feel like they’re in someone’s home, like a family,” Mr. Balogun said. “That’s the standard of service we look for.”
In 2023, Mr. Balogun opened Radio Kwara, where he melds music and food. He will be hosting a pop-up dinner at the New Museum on Feb. 20 and will be one of the featured chefs at the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America event on Feb. 27.
On Sundays, Mr. Balogun struggles to distance himself from his ever-beeping phone and delights in spending time with his son, Ola Balogun, 13, and his partner, Naomi Sarah Clark, 41, who is an artist.
LOSING BATTLE I wake up around 6:45. I try not to check my email or get sucked into social media, but it’s a battle I’ve been losing for years. By 7:30, I emerge out of the black hole, get ready and go to my cafe, The Bureau. It’s open seven days a week, and the coffee’s good. My intention is to grab a coffee and go to Von King Park, walk some laps while I check my email, but if there’s a line, I’ll jump in and help out for an hour.
PANCAKE CONNOISSEURS After that, I meet up with Ola [who lives with his mother in Greenwich Village]. We have this adventure we’ve been doing together for years: finding the best pancakes in New York. We’ll either go to a new place we want to try or to one of our defaults. In Brooklyn, we’ll go to Saraghina Caffè for ricotta pancakes. Rule of Thirds in Greenpoint has a really good soufflé pancake, but you have to be in the mood. Or we’ll go to East One, in Carroll Gardens, for amazing malted milk pancakes.
WALKING AND TALKING Ola and I take walks. We’ve been walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan since he was 7 years old. We’ll walk to my new restaurant, Radio Kwara in Clinton Hill. It’s a Nigerian restaurant that’s a buka — a hole in the wall. When I was a kid going to the buka, it’s where I’d hear new music. The Japanese have a listening room. I wanted to marry the listening room with food. The music is very important to the aesthetic of the restaurant. Ola likes to be there and work on making the best egg sandwiches.
GETTING TO “WE” Ola has been around restaurants all his life. I don’t know if dining with me is so much fun for him, because I’m constantly quizzing him, “What do you think about that?” I’m thinking about the health department, labor costs, the Department of Buildings, but Ola’s ideas are bright and fresh. Watching his progression is quite cool. He’s now saying, “We should do this,” and I know he’s interested. Ola’s only 13, but when I do a new project, he’s one of the people that I call.
SHOP TALK There’s always something Ola needs. He does all the sports — basketball, soccer — and he’ll say: “There’s this new cleat. I really want it.” But it’s like $400, and I’ll say, “Who do you think your dad is?” We’ll go window shop in Williamsburg or grab a gizmo from Best Buy to make Ola’s gaming setup better.
TO THE COURTS Around 3 p.m., we go to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Y.M.C.A. Ola’s into working out. I’m supposed to work out with him, but I don’t do it so well. I’ll dribble the ball, but then my phone starts ringing, and I find myself drawn back to my cyber adventures on the phone.
HOT SOUP TIME MACHINE Ola goes back to the West Village, and I link up with Naomi. She lives in Connecticut during the week, but on Sunday she comes to the city. She’ll be working at her studio space at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so I’ll go there, and then we go to an underground Nigerian restaurant in East New York. You press a buzzer, and if you look like the right person, they let you in. It’s full of old Nigerian men and women, and everybody’s aggressively arguing about politics from the 1960s. It’s like you went into a time machine. They’re yelling, but they’re having a good time.
We’ll get a to-go order of pepper soup and jollof rice, which was originally from the Wolof people in Senegal and Gambia. I’ll be honest with you: Nigerians make way better jollof rice than the Ghanaians any day. I can’t imagine what the Senegalese and Gambians think with the Nigerians and Ghanaians fighting about jollof rice, because it’s their food, but Nigerians make it way better.
THE ARTIST’S STUDIO We drive to Naomi’s studio and home in Norwalk, Conn., around 6. Every week Naomi has a new picture. It’s meditative for me to go to her studio, walk around and look at the paintings. It’s a time where I’m taking my brain completely out of work and getting lost in the art. Naomi will ask me what I think about the work. I’m really going to give a thoughtful answer, but it might take me the whole week.
THE GREAT DEBATE Then the real battle begins: We eat the takeout, and we debate what to watch on TV. I like watching the old British stuff that I used to hate when I was a kid. There’s a show called “Yes Minister,” and then it became “Yes, Prime Minister.” It’s like “House of Cards,” but it’s from the ’80s. It’s pure adult humor. I didn’t like it then, but now I’m laughing, and I’m like, “Oh, no, I’m old!”
I know Naomi’s secretly watching reality shows, but I will not. Sometimes we land in the middle and watch “Grand Designs,” the British show about building a house. I used to watch it while building the Dept of Culture.
PODCASTS UNDER THE STARS After that, I’ll go outside to the firepit. I have this jacket I got from J. Crew, and I call it my climate control jacket. I’ll sit outside in the cold under the stars. I love it in the summer, but the colder the better. When it’s cold, you don’t hear anything else around. I’ll listen to the BBC podcast “Thinking Allowed.” It’s just so brilliant. I allow my thoughts to flow in, and scribble my ideas down before I forget. Sometimes I enjoy it so much I listen to it twice.
There’s this very Yoruba thing — we have a very oral history. When I was a kid, my mom used to tell us stories. It was something we loved, everybody huddled together. In the 1990s, I used to listen to Dick Estell on “Radio Reader” on NPR, way before there were podcasts. I loved it, and wherever I was, I would run home to my apartment in Brooklyn Heights to listen. I try to find a moment to myself to listen to something audio. It’s my time.
The end of my Sunday is midnight or 1 in the morning. It’s a long day.
Sunday Routine readers can follow Ayo Balogun on Instagram @deptofculturebkand @radiokwarabk.