Two years ago, Godshelter Oluwalogbon was dishing out traditional Nigerian fare out of the back of his car. This weekend, the 41-year-old carted home the Vendy Cup, the top honor in the annual street food competition put on by the Street Vendor Project.
Oluwalogbon and his wife, Bisola, pride themselves on serving authentic food from the west African nation. And they did so Saturday on Governor’s Island, which hosted the 13th annual Vendy Awards, the main fundraiser for the Project, a nonprofit that provides legal representation and advocacy for street vendors.
Since 2015, The Oluwalogbons have operated DF Nigerian from a signature bright green food truck on the corner of Second Avenue and 44th Street, serving both new and returning customers steps from the Nigerian Consulate. And there is plenty of repeat clientele.
“I want people to go away with the impression that this is authentic,” Godshelter Oluwalogbon said. “This food is real.”
On Saturday, the Oluwalogbons served sample-size portions of colorful jollof rice, traditional moi moi, and peppered goat stew that wowed attendees.
“There was such a good spice to everything,” said Ron Banlong, a volunteer at the Vendys. “The meat was just falling apart.”
Another attendee at the event, Emily Spadafora, also celebrated the cuisine. “It seems like they put a lot of heart into what they do,” she said. “The taste was so different.”
Born in Ghana and raised in Nigeria, Oluwalogbon immigrated to the United States in October 2001. Within two months, he had secured a job at an Upper West Side staple, Zabar’s. After 10 years and a promotion from prep cook to sous chef, Oluwalogbon, by then a father of three, decided to start his own catering business.
Another aspect that sets DF Nigerian apart from its competitors is variety. In a kitchen of less than 16 feet, the husband-wife team cooks and serves more than 30 items each day. Oluwalogbon said that a typical food truck will serve around five or six items and break them into smaller portions to mimic variety.
“We have so many different items of food because that is what we represent,” he said. “When people come here and ask for the most traditional dish, we want to say ‘yes, we have it.’”
While Oluwalogbon is the culinary expert, DF Nigerian is a family affair. Everyone in the family contributes, from Bisola running the business when Oluwalogbon travels to the three children washing vegetables (or encouraging passers-by to try their dad’s food). Oluwalogbon hopes to pass the business down to his children someday.
“I cannot trade working with [my family] for anything,” he exclaimed. “We’ve sacrificed a lot. You can’t have it all perfect, but I love it.”
Those challenges were all made worth it when Oluwalogbon discovered he was nominated for the Vendys, he said, something he had never even heard of. The nomination process opens every spring, when customers from all around the world whittle down the city’s 10,000 food trucks into 25 finalists.
“This came from the heart of the people,” he said about the unexpected nomination. “It shows we’re touching some good lives here and people really value that we’re out there.”
While DF Nigerian came prepared to win with a diverse array of dishes, the victory was more than a celebration of its traditional mince pies and efo elegusi, a traditional Nigerian vegetable soup.
Of the estimated 20,000 street vendors in New York City, 90 percent are immigrants like Oluwalogbon, according to the Street Vendor Project.
These are the individuals, couples and families sharing their cultures and traditions everyday on the streets of city through a universal language: food. On Governors Island, with an unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty, the immigrant community and their contributions took center stage.
“This is a beautiful thing for my family and for all Nigerians,” Oluwalogbon said as he embraced his wife and three children with one arm and raised the coveted trophy with the other.