27-year-old Nigerian Chef, Hilda Effiong Bassey, popularly known as Hilda Baci, in this interview, speaks on her Cook-a-thon journey and what next for her brand after she successfully cooked for more than 100 hours in four days, to set a new record for the longest cooking time in the world.
At the time you conceived this dream or were preparing for the cook-a-thon, did you at any point imagine it would draw the kind of support you had?
To be honest, I knew it was a good call. I knew it was a dream worth something. But, if I tell you that when we were having our preparatory sessions, we knew the governor would come on a particular day or the president would tweet at me, I’d be lying. It is an amazing thing people understood the mission, and understood what it took to get to that point. Even when I had this dream, I didn’t realize how big it was going to be. But I do know that it was important for me to make sure that everything was done perfectly. We followed all the rules. I had an experience I wanted to create and I did not cut any corners in creating that experience, and I’d say God, knowing what my intentions were, just decided to put this out there.
Were there brands that rejected you before the competition and how do you feel about it?
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I knew this wasn’t something all brands would key into. I remember having a meeting with the team when it was getting much closer to the event, some spirits were down because we weren’t getting the reaction that we hoped we would get. I remember telling them that what was important at that time was the attempt and making sure that it happens and that we do it properly. You cannot blame these brands; this is business for them.
Was I downcast about it? Definitely not. At no point did I feel like it wasn’t going to happen because I didn’t have one million brands to support me. I am so grateful for the brands that came on board because they came together to make it a good experience. I do not take the support for granted.
You prepared for this cook-a-thon for five years, why did it take that long to achieve this feat?
When I say I prepared for this for five years, a lot of people might assume that I started losing weight five years ago. Five years ago, there was no ‘My food by Hilda’. Five years ago, I could not afford to have this conversation. But God had already laid it in my heart five years ago. I think he now prepared me, and prepared my brand.
I remember when I was doing the dry-run, I said I couldn’t have done it when I was bigger. So, was my motivation to lose weight about the cook-a-thon? Absolutely not. I knew that there was so much I wanted to do with my life, and I have to be on my feet as much as possible. To get on that, I needed to eliminate the little things that affect me mentally.
I put in a lot more effort into fitness. That is, going to the gym, being more consistent, and building my form because standing for four days is no small feat. Even with all the exercise, it was incredibly difficult. My feet at one point were double the size. My ankles and my back still hurt. I have burns, I slept and burnt my hand at some point.
Even with all the fitness, it still took a lot out of me physically. I’ve lost four kilograms in the last three days. I’m still unable to eat, I still have been unable to sleep properly. I’m tired, but my body is refusing to shut down. So, it still took a lot out of me.
Was the plan 100 hours initially?
No. I didn’t plan to do 100 hours before I started. My friend and brother convinced me to make it 100 hours. At that point, he told me it would be nice to make it a round number. My concern was if we had raw materials to cook for more people. The minute they gave the information that we still had more foodstuff to cook for more people, I agreed to proceed to 100 hours.
When I started, I’d say the first day was the hardest day. I almost gave up at least six times on the first day but as time went on, my family, my friends, my followers, and the general public became part of the dream and the journey.
When I wanted to give up and then I saw how interested people were, it dawned on me that I wasn’t doing this for just myself. At that moment, it was more about the people, and I could not have finished 100 hours without them.
I had to thank them. I had to talk to them because it’s important to me that they know how their support and their presence, both online and offline, helped me get through those days, those hours and those very difficult times.
I think that is something we need. There is so much negative press about Nigeria, but we are such amazing people. Honestly, just give us a chance because we will thrive in the most difficult conditions.
How will you feel if your record is not validated?
To me, my record has been validated. What is coming in is just a certification. I mean, do you see what we have done? This is everywhere. People are talking about Nigeria from countries that we don’t even know existed. What more do you want? It goes beyond the certificate, and it has gone way beyond the plaque. I also know in my heart that we did everything by the books. We made sure that we left absolutely no stone unturned, when we looked at the guidelines.
We got the timekeepers, we got the adjudicators, they ran their shifts, we measured every single meal that was made, we measured the yield, we counted the numbers, we have all the statistics, and we have all the documentation. It wasn’t child’s play. It was a very deliberate attempt, and we put in the work. We were live the entire time, so if there was anybody that had time and watched it from day one to day five, they would know that I did it.
While we are awaiting the validation, how will you feel if your record is overtaken by the Liberian Chef?
I have done it. He should try it. I didn’t do it so that nobody else will get there. You do 100 so that somebody else will do 110. That person that does 110 does it so that the next person will do 150. We will just keep increasing the number seeing how far we can go and expanding on what we are capable of. Maybe before now, nobody knew that it was possible to stand for 100 hours cooking. One of the major reasons why we were so intentional with filming the entire process was that when I went to attempt this, I went online to find videos of the previous chefs that did it, and I couldn’t find up to three videos. One of the reasons why I didn’t know I could sit, despite the fact that Guinness did not ask me to stand, was that in a few videos I saw, she was standing. Only after the attempt did I find a clip where she was sitting. That was when I realized ‘oh Hilda Baci, you could have sat’.
For me, I knew that somebody else would want to do this after I have done it. So, I want to give you the template, I need you to see what it takes, so, you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Was there a time during the Cook-a-thon that you had to improvise?
I had to improvise almost the entire time. Speaking about it physically, it was hard every day. I had to deal with the anxiety of failure. I think that was the first thing I struggled with. I don’t know if anybody has struggled with anxiety so much that you start to feel pain from your shoulder into your ribs. You can’t really function, but you still have to keep going. The fear of what if I fail.
There was a point where I could barely see. There was a point where I was seeing the stage upside-down. I don’t know if it was because of anxiety but I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t also drinking water because I didn’t want to have to pee. I was trying to save much time for my break so I could sleep, even if it was for 10 minutes. I was not hydrated as much as I should have and I wasn’t eating. When they took my vitals, my blood sugar was low almost all the time. That affected my vision.
I did a lot of improvising because I was making recipes that I had made over and over again. I already knew what went in at any point. 75% of the meals I made, I didn’t taste. They had to tell me the taste of the food because that was the only way I could have eaten. At some point, they came back to tell me that the Coconut Jollof Rice was not sweet. I was ready to fight but I realized that they were saying that just so that I could eat from the food.
I used ice to try to keep my eyes open. At some point my assistant had to direct me through, when I was half asleep and half awake. I had to slap myself a few times just to stay awake.
Your mum plays a lot of roles in your life and she is also a super chef. How did this impact you?
I always say, I am my mother’s daughter. My mother is very driven and determined. Anything she sets her mind to do, she does it. She said she wanted her children to go to the best schools, she did it. She always puts her mind to things and she does it. I always say to myself that if my life is anything like my mother’s, I just need to be consistent and I will do well. So yes, my mother has played a huge role in who I am today.
There was a lot of teamwork in the whole journey. What advice do you have for young people with regards to working as a team?
We live in a time where a lot of people are scared to give credit; where everybody wants to be in a space where you can say you did it by yourself. It is difficult to get to a place where there is a ‘we’. That has never been the case for me. Down to my place of work, it is important to me that everybody feels seen and everybody is heard. So, I try my best to create an environment where we understand that we are on the same page, we can disagree, but there is a common goal. Now the question is, are you for this common goal? Or are you against it? If your answer is that you are for this common goal, then we will find a way to align.
A lot of people don’t understand that emotional intelligence entails ensuring that you’re able to communicate with people and have a good working relationship. There was a lot of teamwork but it doesn’t mean that we didn’t have our conflict. I think I posted a video where we spent hours debating. We had an entire debate for at least two hours in one of our strategy sessions for something about the Cook-a-thon, during the prep time. But in the end, we were all still laughing. Everybody didn’t go away getting what they wanted, but we just understood that this is for the greater good. If we go with this decision and it doesn’t work out, we pivot and we go to the next decision. It is not a do-or-die thing. We just need to understand and respect everyone.
After achieving this feat, what next for you?
The funny thing is that ‘what next’ is one of the things that gives me anxiety. When you do something like this, and there’s this much attention on you, everyone is waiting for the next thing that you’re about to do. Also, everybody expects that the next thing that you’re going to do has to be bigger than the last thing you did.
I have made a conscious effort to tell myself that this was a means to an end. There were reasons why I decided to do this. Before now, I owned a restaurant, I teach. One of my biggest goals is: I want Nigerian recipes to be propagated across the world. I want it to be a normal thing to see Egusi soup in an American restaurant. I want you to be able to walk into any random supermarket and find Nigerian ingredients there, not having to travel hours to one African store to find just a couple of ingredients. Now, the only way that I am going to be able to achieve that is if the demand for it increases. If the demand for it increases, it means that there is now a market for it there. People will feel the need to start cultivating Egusi in Atlanta. People will feel the need to start planting wild spinach, okazi, in the UK.
Doing this Cook-a-thon is one, but this is not the only thing I have to do. It means I still have to teach more people how to make Nigerian food. So, it still helps me to achieve my goal. I want to expand my restaurant. I was already in the process of expanding my restaurant: opening up to investors to come in and franchise for other countries, other parts of the world. I am also trying to create jobs.
Now, everybody wants to work in an oil company. I used to tell my staff that very soon, it will be a big deal to work in my restaurant because my chefs are going to be so good. You’ll find a chef that has an official car, that has his own house because he is well paid; has insurance, and has HMO. That is the system that I am trying to build. It is not only white-collar jobs that deserve a lot of recognition. I feel like in the culinary space, we look down on what we bring and what we provide.
For the Nigerian girl-child, what does this feat mean in terms of achieving their dreams?
The first thing I’ll say is that your dreams are valid. God has put something in your hands and you just need to figure out what to do with it. I say this because even when growing up, there was a point where I felt like once I am done with school, I will get married and give birth, and my husband will just change my life and we will just be spending his money. That is because for the longest time, that is the narrative that has been put out there. We haven’t created a system where women know that they are capable of so much more. Women are so strong, tenacious and we are capable of so much. What happens now is people believe that if you are a girl and you are smart, you cannot be beautiful; or if you are beautiful, then you cannot be smart, or if you are beautiful and smart, you shouldn’t still be doing so much with that your smartness because there are men out there to pay for your lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be that. You can be young, beautiful, smart, sexy and still be capable of changing the world. I say this because when we started this journey, I remember being turned down from a speaking engagement because they went to Instagram handle and concluded that I was just a ‘Slay Queen’. That is something that needs to change. I don’t have to be dressed like a Nun. How I look does not reduce the value of what is in my head. I am not saying walk naked, but it is important that young women are allowed to be themselves and still understand that being beautiful and attractive are not the only things you have to offer. You have a brain, you have a God, and you can be all things and still achieve something.
However, I understand that they need examples and I have volunteered myself as an example. As we have more examples like that, it means that more young girls would come out of their shell. You are allowed to live, be beautiful, be smart, and still dream big.
So, the next time someone tells you that you are just a girl, you can tell the person that you are not just a girl, you are a smart, ambitious girl that has a goal. You have big dreams and they are going to come through.
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