“Before now, you were not revered if you weren’t a foreign chef. Taking up the challenge has helped shed a positive light on the (culinary) industry.”
By Adedamola Jones Adedayo
On June 13th, 2023, Guinness World Records confirmed Nigerian chef and restaurateur, Hilda Effiong Bassey, popularly known as Hilda Baci, as the record holder for the longest cooking marathon by an individual. Hilda set a new time of 93 hours and 11 minutes, displacing Indian Chef, Lata Tondon, who previously held a record time of 87 hours, 45 minutes in 2019.
The confirmation came after the Nigerian chef attempted a four-day cook-a-thon from May 11th to May 15th, 2023.
Apart from being a chef, Baci is an actress. Before her GWR attempt, the 26-year-old native of Akwa Ibom state, and alumnus of Madonna University, Nigeria, featured in the films Dreamchaser (2020), A Walk on Water (2021), and Mr & Mrs Robert (2023).
Baci is now a culinary heroine with cross-continental recognition and a source of inspiration to many young people. She shares some interesting moments in her career, and how her GWR success story has helped to improve the image of Nigerian chefs.
What was your reaction to the entire cooking marathon experience?
It was incredible. I feel like I’m just getting to live the experience because, while it was happening I was cooking. I couldn’t see all the engagements. But then, after the cook-a-thon, I heard all the “gist.” I was excited.
Word has it that it took you five years to plan for the cook-a-thon. How was the planning process?
The idea for the cook-a-thon first came to me five years ago. It took a while before the vision became clear enough to decide what exactly I wanted to do, and how I wanted to go about it. I did a lot of research and I built a brand, which, of course, is still growing. Initial preparations for the cook-a-thon started two years ago. I started physically training and researched people who had done similar things. I also inquired about the rules. Then, the event itself took eight months to plan.
Did you reach out to the previous record holder, Lata Tondon?
Before the event, I had started following her (Tondon) on social media. I wanted to reach out to her because I needed clarification on certain things. I could have joined Tondon in a live session at some point, but I was late and the session had ended. I was sceptical about sending her a message and decided to proceed with my record-breaking attempt. But with the way she later responded to the attempt, I felt that if I had messaged her earlier, she would have replied.
Before the cook-a-thon, you participated and emerged victorious in the Jollof Faceoff Challenge in 2021. What was the competition about?
A Ghanaian chef had challenged Nigerians to a Jollof rice face-off and some Nigerians took it up and then put up a quest. The public was required to nominate whom they would like to represent Nigeria. I was nominated alongside other amazing cooks and chefs. We were required to submit our Jollof rice recipes and a group of judges examined them. The judges then selected one person to represent Nigeria, who turned out to be me. I was to face the Ghanaian chef who had called for the challenge. The judges for the face-off were two Nigerians and two Ghanaians. The meals we prepared and tasted blindly. I was nervous during the face-off. I was also scared of the reactions I would get from fellow Nigerians if I didn’t win. You know how Nigerians don’t joke with culture and dignity.
Knowing that you featured in Inem King’s Mr & Mrs Roberts is amazing. Tell us about your acting career.
Yes, I was featured in the film. I appeared in only one scene. I had done other acting projects before. One such is Dreamchaser in 2020. I guess people focus on Mr & Mrs Roberts because it’s the most recent. I looked different in the other films I starred in, such as Dreamchaser. This was before the cook-a-thon and I looked much bigger in appearance at the time.
How has the cook-a-thon enhanced your career?
Obviously, I’m now well-recognised and respected as a chef. Away from that, a lot of Nigerians now realise that cooking is prestigious, especially those who used to look down on the culinary industry. Before now, you were not revered if you weren’t a foreign chef. . Taking up the challenge has helped shed a positive light on the (culinary) industry. The cook-a-thon has also helped my business. While the cook-a-thon was ongoing, people were curious to know who I was and what I was about. People have become more interested in trying out my recipes. My social media platforms have also really grown, there have been so many positives.
Your background must have been instrumental in your culinary career. Could you lead us into it?
My childhood was fun and normal. My mum is a caterer, and she trained all her children to cook. We used to help her out at her restaurant. She was very intentional about our growth, and this was obvious in the schools we attended. She has been very supportive, allowing us to explore our different dreams. I remember when I started my business, my mum was the first customer I had. The (food) subscription (package) was fifteen thousand naira at the time. I have six siblings, but I remember our house was always full because my mum liked having more kids around.
What challenges have you faced so far in your culinary career?
Running a business in Nigeria is challenging on its own. In Lagos, there are traffic and logistics problems. Also, the fluctuating price of diesel and constant inflation have made business challenging. It can be tough maintaining reasonable food prices to please customers, even as food items are expensive in the market. I’m constantly growing and trying to navigate the changing economy.
What did you find challenging during the cook-a-thon?
Of course, following the guidelines and modalities was tough. I had a team of about 20 people who helped observe the time and ensured that I was taking my breaks and following other rules. In spite of all my training, I still had to deal with physical exhaustion. I remember trying to stay up for 20 hours so I could get an accumulated rest time of an hour and 40 minutes. It was taxing. On the first day, I felt the fear of failure. I also had cramps the whole time. But there was a lot of support throughout, which definitely helped. My team was competent because everyone, including the public relations team, had studied the guidelines. I remember asking the culinary director questions about the weight of foodstuffs that were left because this was also required of us.
Lastly, a fun question. If you could change a character trait you have noticed in many people, what would it be?
Jumping into conclusions. I think people don’t take their time to get the right information. They are so quick to spread what they hear, so there’s a lot of misinformation out there. I wish people were more interested in learning and improving in different areas first.
Adedamola Jones Adedayo is a teacher, writer, and literary arts & popular culture critic. He is particularly interested in African writings, films and music. Reach him at email@example.com.On Facebook, he is Adedamola Jones Adedayo, on Instagram @jonesthegoodboy, and on Twitter @AdedamolaAdeda4.