African Restaurant Revival
New York is home to people from all over the world, and it is well-known that they often bring with them cuisine from their homelands. Foodies descend on food courts in subterranean malls in Queens, Russian bakeries in Brooklyn, and ethnic food trucks pretty much anywhere throughout the five boroughs. For being a cosmopolitan city with such cosmopolitan tastes, surprisingly little attention is paid to the diversity of African food. The continent of Africa is rich in food tradition and, increasingly, we are seeing these traditions manifest throughout New York. This trend is occurring in many places, in particular Manhattan and Brooklyn. In fact, several openings over the past few years have dramatically altered the African dining scene, and this development is very much worthy of coverage. This citywide exposure to the African food trend makes it an excellent topic heading into the summer eating season.
There has been a growth in the number and quality of African restaurants in the city in the past several years, and the statistics support this trend. As of 2004, there were only seven African restaurants in the entire city. While two of those have since closed, a baker’s dozen have opened in their place, bringing the total, with expected new openings this year, to twenty. What’s more important is that these African restaurants provide an incredible opportunity for New Yorkers to experience the culture, cuisine and hospitality of many different cuisines. These range from the familiar Ethiopian cuisine to the accessible wine-oriented fine South African dining of Tolani, to places that double as a community center for recent African immigrants.
African food is, in some ways, the final frontier, and yet it is familiar, and this blend of exoticism and comfort is a compelling package. People are looking for exotic destinations, and Africa is ready to explode onto the New York dining scene. There are many great restaurants already in the game, and something for every taste.
There are some wonderful stories to be told about African restaurants — immigrant stories, entrepreneurial tales, and of course there is all the mouth-watering food to talk about as well. These are stories that will pique the curiosity of the reader and convince more New Yorkers to explore the wonderfully diverse cuisines of Africa. There is no better place in the world to eat African cuisine outside of Africa itself, so it is time for New York to take pride in that, brag about it, and tell these great stories.
Chrome gleams with the sparkle and promise of an exciting evening. The soft, industrial lighting of the restaurant hits the chrome and the flash of an inviting future gleams and glimmers. There is a soft backdrop of blue that helps to complement the overall color scheme and the decor, giving the whole atmosphere a cool-toned, slightly futuristic and slightly industrial type feel. The restaurant feels as if one is in a hip loft in the future. There are exposed brick walls that are tinged blue. The chairs and tables are of a distressed wood that has been stained a steel gray. The table tops are steel and glass. The look of this restaurant immediately envelopes the visitor, promising an experience that cannot be had anywhere else. Even so, there is plenty of room for dancing near the stage where the band performs. This is the latest restaurant of Cisse Elhadji, the owner of the Ponty Bistro. This is his upcoming restaurant, “La Terengea.”
As wise as his decision-making has been regarding the decor of this restaurant, it is still a gamble. This is the first time the owner has had to take on both a bank loan and money from friends and family. He was given six months to renovate and he’s running four weeks behind schedule. Even so, this particular restaurant gleams with a certain amount of promise. While the decor is very cold and chic, the flavors and smells of the restaurant are pleasantly robust. The menu of the restaurant is a hybrid of African and French. “Their menu includes traditional foods such as Niokolokoba as well as customized dishes like moules Africana served in African spices and french fries” (Unchopped, 2010). The restaurant has already gotten a buzz for promising to offer gourmet meals at affordable prices: the menu also seeks to add a dabble of Mediterranean cuisine to the overall food aesthetic. The food delivered to each dinner includes meats, vegetables and spices of rich flavor, and is actively seeking out a more diverse customer base, so that it can be accepted as a more neighborhood spot. Since it will be opening in New York, which is a haven of cultural diversity, it seeks to attract all walks of life in terms of diversity. Thus, the prices appeal to people from a range of income classes. The waiters are also diverse, as they are all bilingual or trilingual.
II. Delivery of the Who, Where, What, Why, How, etc.
While this scene is promising, it is actually something which could occur in a number of African restaurants in New York City. As one journalist explains, “CAN’T afford to chow down in Addis Ababa or gambol in some South African game park any time soon? Then try this whirlwind tour that has you (kind of) crisscrossing the continent, from an Ethiopian vegetarian’s paradise to Mauritanian appetizers to a South African brunch, all in one weekend and for little more than the cost of a trip to New York. O.K., for exactly the same price as a trip to New York, since that’s what it is” (Kugel, 2007). The influx of such restaurants has boomed in the past couple of years, with a new African restaurant opening up in New York every six months, which is a dramatic rise from the previous two or three years, where the numbers hovered somewhere around once a year. The reader needs to care about this new phenomenon because it has so much to offer: “For dinner, try Les Enfants Terribles, deep in the Lower East Side on the eastern edges of Canal Street (kind of like Manhattan’s equivalent of Timbuktu). The masks on the walls inside and tent like canopy outside give it a game-lodge feel, and those who enjoy pronunciation challenges will enjoy ordering dishes from throughout Africa and the African diaspora (i.e. Brazil)” (Kugel, 2007). There are a wide range of opportunities for widening one’s cuisine experience and for sampling a cultural dish which is truly eye-opening. Most people who live in New York City today can’t afford to go on a tour of the entire continent of Africa, but now, as a result of the fact that there are so many wonderful restaurants in this part of the city, one can truly go on a miniature tour of Africa, sampling a range of ethnic cuisines. However, what makes this restaurant so special is the fact that it focuses on a hybrid of cuisines, so that the average patron can get a sense of what African-French fusion tastes like, with hints of Mediterranean. It makes for a truly special culinary experience. Furthermore, this restaurant truly attracts a diverse range of clients, giving one a truly varied experience which is as a distinct as the city of New York itself.
The openings of African restaurants in New York have almost tripled in the last three decades since 1990. There are more African restaurants now than ever because of the popularity and success of the ones which have opened. African restaurants in New York started in SRO hotel rooms, and some see their flourishing as part of the overall Brooklyn/Harlem revival. When it comes to Cisse he no doubt echoes the thoughts of Lookman Mashood at Buka, “I wanted to create an African restaurant where you would feel comfortable bringing your friends. In those days when I worked at the other place and I invited friends from important places to have a meal there, I had to keep apologizing for the look of the place and the conditions. The food was excellent, but the place was a dive. I made a mental note that when the opportunity presented itself” (Spiropoulus, 2014). Creating a place which was not only chic, but which was somewhere that people could bring their friends was all too important to Cisse and is something around which then entire cuisine revolves. Many of the dishes involve big plates for people to share, or smaller plates for people to share — taking tiny sample sizes. Cisse is someone in the restaurant business who understands that many diners are adventurous: they want to be able to take their friends to new places and to be able to pick and choose a range of interesting dishes that they’ve never had. By capitalizing on a place that is friendly and where people want to take their friends, they thus become more and more desirable and friendlier to the average customer. Cisse is very much a leader when it comes to the Brooklyn/Harlem revival of such restaurants.
III. Main character: The Senegalese Chef at Ponty Bistro, Cisse Elhadji
Cisse is very much not only a leader of the entire movement of desirable African restaurants which are part of this culinary tidal wave, but is a living example of the massive success that one can have with this movement. Cisse moves through his current restaurant, Ponty Bistro, like a benevolent tornado. He shakes hands with the best of them, and is laughing and talking with customers, making everyone feel unbelievably welcome. The success that Ponty Bistro has experienced is without a doubt because of the efforts that this main owner has put in to the entire experience. In many ways the restaurant is a huge success because Cisse innately understands the need of making not just the culinary and atmospheric experience a rousing success, but because he uses his own charisma to help drive those elements forward. Many investor predict that La Terenga is going to have the same level of success because of his presence and his understanding of what restaurant goers demand.
Cisse has scheduled the soft opening of this restaurant for July 15. Cisse truly enjoys the massive challenge of opening up a restaurant, even though he has been quoted as saying how hard and difficult it is .For Cisse, two reasons generally underscore his actions for this. The first, “Always try to grow and make a better life” and the second, “La Terenga” was a restaurant he easily wanted his entire life: it’s big and expensive. For Cisse, he wants to keep opening restaurants in six-month or a year, as he is a self-professed workaholic who doesn’t smoke or drink, but just believes in the utter importance of working long hours. As Cisse explains, in “1996 I came here to this country with nothing. I just keep going. It’s life. I work hard. I believe. I play by the rules. You make money. If the restaurant isn’t full it will drive me crazy. I find a way. Find a solution. Rent is very high. I can’t afford 1 month without paying rent. This is my job. Never had a publicist. I always do it myself. Ponty Bistro was all word of mouth and yelp reviews.” However, for the new spot, Cisse has interviewed two publicists and as a means of promoting the new restaurant: he understands that with this bigger venture, there’s more of an aggravated need to promote it aggressively. When it comes to his own personal reasons for working so hard and wanting to leave his stamp so aggressively on New York, Cisse says in part it is an aspect of coming to America — the nation presents itself with a desire for people to put their stamp on it. However, Cisse does speculate, that perhaps part of his desire to do this is connected with the fact that both his parents are dead.
For Cisse, a typical day involves getting up at 5am and going to his computer to answer emails and to check inventory. He then heads over to the new restaurant to check on the status of the current construction work and to assess the progress. He then has a day which is filled with a series of meetings where he has to meet with a range of individuals to discuss the success of the project, such as more publicists and social media icons. Cisse’s day closes with a visit to Ponty Bistro at around 4pm where he checks on things being set up before the dinner shift. During the sinner shift, Cisse bounds through the restaurant, helping to expedite orders and making sure that all customers feel very welcome. Cisse completes his day with a two-hour session on his computer where he continues to check emails, staying in touch with vendors and distributors.
IV. Why’s and How’s
While the boom of African restaurants in New York is remarkable, it is still worth trying to understand the exact reasons for this boom: the reality is that a range of factors are responsible for the popularity of these restaurants. Some of the reasons are connected to immigration, a growing familiarity with this population, and an overall development of a more adventurous taste in eating. However, much of the boom and the success in this arena is directly connected to the fact that many of these restaurants have been able to exhibit a high level of mastery: they understand the necessity of presenting dishes that are a mastery of details. Consider the following that has been written up about the Ponty Bistro: “This neighborhood bistro, flaunting cuisine francaise rejuvenated with a bright and bold Senegalese makeover, is not to be overlooked. Right off the bat, we caught ourselves slurping a fiery mussel bath with soup spoons, lemongrass stalks and all, while using tiny toast rounds like sponges to mop up buttery bread crumb topping from an escargot dish’s hard to reach nooks and crannies. Entrees are strong and serious down to the spicy details: tart onion jam and rich couscous adorn mains like carefully chosen accessories” (Pearlman, 2014). Cisse’s restaurant in not the only one that excels in this manner. All of these restaurants appear to understand the importance of giving customers a truly perfect dining experience. The need for perfection and mastery is connected to the fact that so many diners are unfamiliar with these types of cuisines; thus, there’s an importance of making the experience truly pleasurable and precise, down to the final detail.
In certain, respects, it can be harder to find African chefs who are as well-versed in such culinary delights. On the other hand, because New York has recently experienced such a consistent wave of African immigrants, this challenge is well overcome. These immigrants come from all walks of life, including the culinary industry of the African continent. Thus, it’s not difficult to get a wide range of talent in this regard.
However, other experts see the wealth of African restaurants opening up as a natural progression of the state of things. Many of these restaurant ventures started first as street vendors. “The Senegalese street vendors who once crowded 125th Street in Manhattan can no longer be found on the main thoroughfare. But along a nearby commercial strip, in the heart of what is now known as Little Senegal, West African restaurants have moved in. Restaurants such as Les Ambassades and African Kine serve loyal African patrons, as well as a diverse clientele from across the city” (Laing, 2013). In this regard, the development of restaurants was a natural progression. These new immigrants started small, getting their bearings as street vendors selling their wares, and then expanded. By starting small, these vendors were able to determine what was popular with their clientele and with the average New Yorker’s palate. They were able to get their feet under them as business-people. It gave them a time to make connections and to organize. “In Brooklyn, established restaurants including Jollof — named for the distinctive Senegalese yellow rice dish — offer menus inspired by West Africa’s culinary heritage. The restaurant, located in Bedford- Stuyvesant maintains a steady business serving Muslim, West African, and African-American patrons as well as curious newcomers to this traditionally black, working class neighborhood” (Laing, 2013). These entrepreneurs were able to capitalize on what they did well and were able to offer strong products in a consistent manner, so that all parties involved were able to appreciate what they did. Their process and evolution continued to have tenets of refinement and class. Certain ingredients were left out either because they wouldn’t complement the fusion and modernity of certain traditional dishes or because the dishes were able to evolve naturally over time. Papa at Jollof’s story about how he became a cook is far more complicated: he had never cooked in his life, rather he learned how to cook in America with his siblings: once he lost his job, he got requests from lots of friends to cook for them, that’s when he got the idea of opening up a restaurant. “I always have my kids and family here. I use to hold them and serve customers. Now [they] take orders and run the restaurant.”
Location continues to be a deciding factor: consider the words of Ahmed, owner of Accra restaurant: “The success-consistency! Once you master something the first time. And you duplicate it. People know you. Duplicate it. People will come back. People come from all over. Customers. Africans lift us. Harlem location attracts everyone. Caucasians come to try something different.”
Consider another chef, Diagne, who is one of Cisse’s contemporaries, explains how he leaves out certain typical ingredients in his cooking, such as dried fish and how he engages in more restraint when it comes to things like hot peppers and cooking oil: these pillars are all aspects which have in and of themselves gone through a certain amount of transformation. These changes don’t just reflect his own development as a chef, but “are also reminiscent of the transformation other immigrant cuisines — such as Chinese, Indian, and Mexican — have undergone the United States. Diagne also on his menu, which are not typical, along with more traditional items with meat and fish” (Laing, 2013).
Akin Akinsaya, also an African immigrant and one who is a key person when it comes to African restaurant week, explains that many people are pushing the envelope in exactly that manner: adjusting dishes which are generally more traditionally cooked and presented in more classic formats, to adjusting it for a more contemporary palate, while still maintaining a high level of authenticity, love and care (Laing, 2013). This makes sense; many of these elite chefs are cooking these traditional dishes in the foreign land of America, so it is reasonable that their dishes take on a slightly different and more distinct taste which better reflects the priorities of the time. As one owner, Sasay, the owner of Lalibela explains, sometimes there just aren’t American words for the spices and flavors experienced, which is good: “Main spices from Ethiopia, so it tastes like home. No English word for it exactly.”
Akin Akinsaya can explain the success and phenomenon of so many of these African restaurants with just one simple sentiment: “Food is where everything starts,’ said Akin Akinsaya, a thirty-something banker and entrepreneur who came to New York from Nigeria twenty years ago, ‘it is an expression of the people’s culture in so many ways’” (Laing, 2013). Thus, given this intensive knowledge of food and of the needs of New Yorkers, Akinsaya launched the first ever New York African Restaurant week as a means of raising both the profile and awareness of African restaurants in the big city (Laing, 2013).
Akinsaya was also the natural choice for this because he understood the nature of the culinary arts in New York and had the experience of working with some of New York’s most renowned chefs and caterers, believing that the theme would resonate strongly with the diverse population in the city (Laing, 2013). “During the week, diners can take advantage of special, discounted prix fix menus at eight participating restaurants. Because many New Yorkers are unfamiliar with African food, the promoters also promise a schedule of networking events complete with celebrity African DJ’s, book readings, wine and food tastings and dance performances” (Laing,2013). The impetus for the celebration of African cuisines is that food is seen as a logical natural of the culture and of the community and the entire work in pushing forth the African culinary arts means sharing that history and background with others who might totally be unacquainted with it. For instance, Lamia, the owner of La Souk takes pride in the diverse clientele: “Customers are diverse. Some are famous. Everyone comes together and I want to keep it that way. The trend of people is interest in food.”
African restaurant week means dedicating a conscious effort to engage in events and a growing trend towards African cuisine in New York which helps in propagating a social mission to help bolster a higher level of awareness to the issues that impact people along the African Diaspora. Thus, African restaurant week is so much more than just a sharing of food and creativity in the culinary arts; it’s a means of giving others a taste of history and understanding in the realm of African taste in the diaspora. “[In] African cuisine, just like culture all over the world, there is a place where cultures intertwine and intersect and different things happen at the point where they intersect,” Akinsaya adds.
Mona Musa is yet another personage who has had a profound influence on the development of African restaurants at this time. Musa has plans to open up a Somalian restaurant in a few months. An event like the African restaurant week can help someone like her in networking and making connections and finding out information along with recipes which can help all those who venture into the daring restaurant business — particularly in New York where as one restaurant owner explains, there is a ton of red tape to work around, as Stanton du Toit, owner of Tolani explains, “New York is completely different in terms of red tape. You need permits. So much red tape. Manhattan makes it so difficult to compete. You need deep pockets. Small businesses get squeezed out.
For Cisse Elhadji, the opening of his restaurant was a wild success. New York came out in droves to sample his newest culinary endeavor. The restaurant was so packed; they even had to close early. Elhadji was elated, saying that this is just the beginning.
Kugel, S. (2007, March 18). Sampling a Continent at Home. Retrieved from nytimes.com: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/travel/18weekend.1.html?_r=0
Laing, N. (2013, October). New York’s First African Restaurant Week Offers New Flavors and a Dash of Culture. Retrieved from fo2w.org: http://fi2w.org/2013/10/14/new-yorks-first-african-restaurant-week-offers-new-flavors-and-a-dash-of-culture/
Pearlman, E. (2014). Ponty Bistro. Retrieved from blacboardeats.com: http://www.blackboardeats.com/sp/ponty-bistro-gramercy-new-york-3
Spiropoulos, R. (2014, June 28). Dining African: 3 Restaurant Biz Success Stories Savor N.Y. African Restaurant Week. Retrieved from blackenterprise.com: http://www.blackenterprise.com/lifestyle/new-york-african-restaurant-week-wraps-in-style/
UNchopped. (2010). UNCHOPPED with Chef Cisse. Retrieved from Unchopped: http://www.blogtalkradio.