America’s Finest New Restaurant Celebrates the Flavors of West Africa


Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz / Images by Katherine Kimball, Joshua Brasted , & Jeremy Tauriac

African delicacies has at all times been effectively represented in america, significantly in dishes characterised as “Southern” in origin, like gumbo or hoppin’ john. However even earlier than chef Serigne Mbaye’s New Orleans eatery Dakar NOLA was named the Finest New Restaurant of 2024 on the James Beard Awards this week, the contributions of the African diaspora to the American food plan had ultimately begun to get pleasure from a long-overdue reappraisal through actuality tv, Netflix docuseries and, most vital, a variety of extensively praised eating institutions: If you wish to e-book a desk at Tatiana in Manhattan, Dept of Tradition in Brooklyn or Kann in Portland, you’d higher plan forward, as a result of their tables are sometimes booked up effectively prematurely.

On this episode of “There’s Extra to That,” Smithsonian contributor Rosalind Cummings-Yeates explains how the ascendancy of pan-African delicacies from “auntie” eating places into the rarefied fantastic eating sphere is an element of a bigger and extra significant marketing campaign of cultural reclamation. And Mbaye tells us why it was so vital to him to make Dakar NOLA a showcase of the distinctive flavors of Senegal, the place he spent his youth.

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Chris Klimek: Chef Serigne Mbaye was born in Harlem however spent a lot of his youth residing along with his household in Senegal. His mother had owned a restaurant in New York earlier than he was born. Finally, he moved again to the States and, as an grownup, labored his means up in eating places and culinary college. However one thing actually clicked when he began working in New Orleans: From beignets to jambalaya, chef Serigne might see Senegalese affect. After which he began to appreciate why.

Serigne Mbaye: So the place I’m from, in Senegal, is an island known as Gorée Island, which is without doubt one of the islands that the Door of No Return is, and our folks used to get shipped out of right here.

Klimek: The Door of No Return is a spot the place hundreds of thousands of enslaved folks had been held earlier than they had been despatched throughout the ocean to America. And lots of of these folks landed instantly in New Orleans.

Mbaye: And in return, our folks obtained right here and tailored to a tradition. And I feel additionally had affect on the culinary scene, what we all know as Creole Cajun. And take into consideration Creole Cajun: With out these Africans, what do you actually have? It’s positively not rice. It’s positively not stews.

Klimek: Chef Serigne’s restaurant, Dakar NOLA, is a spot to honor the connections between African and American delicacies. However, greater than that, it’s a spot the place Serigne desires to problem folks’s perceptions of fantastic eating.

Mbaye: You don’t suppose that okra ought to be revered as a lot as foie gras is? What makes these components so particular? What makes our components appear so low-cost? I imply, our approach is past, extra time-consuming than cooking a foie gras. You get a freaking foie gras that’s reduce properly, you squirt it, hot-pan sear it, a little bit little bit of salt.

You flip it with some cream and butter, with some greens which have been pureed, put it beneath, and a little bit little bit of garnish, and also you suppose that’s price it? Versus okra that’s been smothered down for hours and hours and hours till the sliminess comes out, you add the seafood, is dehydrated seafood, that took endlessly to provide. When will we worth African meals as the identical worth French, Italian and all these different nice cuisines?

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates: It is a significantly transferring story for me, as a result of I’ve the identical heritage.

Klimek: Rosalind Cummings-Yeates just lately wrote a characteristic in regards to the rise of West African fantastic eating within the U.S. for Smithsonian journal.

Cummings-Yeates: Serigne Mbaye has a really critically acclaimed restaurant that’s up for a James Beard Award. These are principally American renditions of Senegalese meals, as a result of many of the Africans that had been transported throughout the slave commerce to Louisiana have Senegalese heritage, and Dakar NOLA is Serigne’s means of showcasing and making folks conscious of these connections, however with a fine-dining spin.

Klimek: Serigne is now one among a cohort of cooks that’s making West African delicacies a serious meals pattern in America. And whereas the culinary contributions of the African diaspora are as outdated as america itself, it’s now being acknowledged in new, thrilling, typically significant methods, particularly in fine-dining areas.

From Smithsonian journal and PRX Productions, that is “There’s Extra to That,” the present that loves a cocktail party. On this episode: an exploration of African delicacies in America. I’m Chris Klimek.

Klimek: Why do you suppose West African delicacies hasn’t been extra acknowledged within the U.S., and why do you suppose that’s beginning to change now?

Cummings-Yeates: Properly, I feel it’s a fancy subject. As a journey author, I see how folks journey to Africa and the way they join with Africa. And usually, it’s not by way of the tradition; it’s by way of the animals, the character, the wildlife. As an illustration, when folks go to Thailand, they’re at all times consuming the meals, they usually come again and, after all, they need to recreate that have. I don’t suppose a number of People do this once they go to West African nations.

There’s additionally a racism subject that’s linked to it. Africa, typically, remains to be related to poverty and famine, and I’ve heard folks say, “Oh, African delicacies—what? They’ve meals?” I imply, it sounds ignorant, however I’ve heard it sufficient occasions to know that folks suppose this.

So all of these elements make West African meals not as acquainted to lots of people, despite the fact that most main cities at all times have these eating places, at all times. However it’s important to have an consciousness for it. And I feel the attention is growing, as a result of we now have African cooks which can be seen now and they’re introducing the meals to a wider viewers.

Klimek: Do you keep in mind your first time consuming West African delicacies?

Cummings-Yeates: It should have been possibly 20 years in the past. I feel it was at somebody’s home, and I’m positive it was Nigerian meals, as a result of I’ve a number of Nigerian pals. So I vaguely do keep in mind having jollof and fish stew for the primary time, possibly 20, 25 years in the past. I cherished the flavors. I hadn’t had something precisely prefer it, but it surely jogged my memory of acquainted dishes, like gumbo and purple rice and issues like that.

Klimek: What’s jollof?

Cummings-Yeates: Jollof rice is solely rice that’s cooked in a tomato sauce to present it taste. So it is extremely just like purple rice that’s quite common all through the South.

Klimek: Rosalind reminded us that a number of components and dishes thought-about mainstream in America, and particularly in Southern delicacies, originated from Africa.

Cummings-Yeates: Throughout the Atlantic slave commerce, many of the enslaved Africans that came visiting had been from West Africa, they usually introduced their cooking traditions with them. Lots of people consider Southern delicacies, it’s like, that’s principally African delicacies, as a result of that’s who was doing the cooking. Deep-frying issues, barbecuing issues, closely seasoning issues, these are all African traditions.

And even a few of the rice that we devour principally in america is African rice. And it was introduced over, and there have been particular individuals who knew learn how to develop that rice, they usually cooked it and ready it within the ways in which they used to once they had been in Africa, and it simply advanced into jambalaya and gumbo and hoppin’ john. However all of these are acquainted dishes right here in America that actually are African. It’s simply that folks don’t understand that.

Klimek: That was one of many issues that moved me most about your story: Enslaved Africans had been capable of protect their traditions by way of meals in a means that they weren’t allowed to by way of clothes or different types of cultural expression.

Cummings-Yeates: Yeah, and it’s actually inspiring when you consider it, as a result of I’d’ve thought, OK, you’re in a spot that actually doesn’t resemble the panorama of the nations that you simply come from. So that you suppose, effectively, how are you going to recreate these dishes if you don’t actually have these components? However as a result of they introduced a few of the components with them, a number of occasions they’d their very own little gardens to eat from. A few of crops and dishes had been capable of be transferred right here. Watermelon was transferred right here from Africa. So it’s fascinating if you dig into that historical past.

Klimek: Are there different dishes that obtained rebranded into “American dishes” that originated in West Africa?

Cummings-Yeates: Black-eyed peas is one other dish that’s a staple all through West Africa that, after all, you may by no means go too many locations within the South and never have black-eyed peas. Purple beans and rice additionally, typically known as hoppin’ john. Nearly the entire so-called Southern dishes are actually African. The greens which can be very talked-about and the way in which that they’re cooked down into nearly a stew, that’s African. I’m glad persons are lastly recognizing them for what they’re.

Klimek: So I understand it is a very, very broad query, however how does African delicacies fluctuate from area to area? Is it the components, is it the fashion of preparation or the seasonings? What are the foremost distinguishing elements?

Cummings-Yeates: Properly, as you already know, Africa is a large continent. It’s the second largest. There are 54 nations, and the panorama varies. And that, after all, goes to tell the meals. In East Africa, as a result of you will have a number of influences from the spice commerce, you can see a number of spices which can be in all probability extra accustomed to Asian delicacies. However due to that historical past of the spice commerce within the Horn of Africa, you’re going to seek out the turmeric and the ginger and the spices informing that delicacies.

West Africa, sure components of the area, you will have heavy meat eaters, a number of beef, a number of lamb, however different areas, it’s way more vegetarian. Once more, relying on the traditions, you may need a Muslim inhabitants, you may need a closely Christian or a closely African faith, and that informs the meals.

Nations on the coast, after all, have much more seafood, much more fish. Yeah, there’s simply so many issues that inform the delicacies, which is why it’s actually weird when you consider it’s actually being simply explored and increasing now, as a result of there’s simply so many alternative cooking kinds that the American public hasn’t actually even seen but.

Klimek: Are there some other seasonings which can be actually distinct to West African meals?

Cummings-Yeates: There are such a lot of seasonings, however I’m attempting to consider any that I might clarify. One taste that’s distinct to most West African delicacies is palm oil. Loads of the flavors are began in palm oil, and that’s a really distinct taste. It’s heavy, it’s savory, and it additionally offers us distinct shade. It offers a reddish-orange shade to a number of the meals. That’s one thing that I can acknowledge immediately. I imply, I can have a look at dish and see if it’s obtained palm oil, really.

Melon seeds are very talked-about in Nigerian delicacies. The mango seeds, they use seeds in ways in which I’ve by no means seen earlier than. As a result of after we consider seeds, we consider possibly sunflower seeds or one thing like that, that’ll add a crunch. However seeds are used for taste, and it’s simply fascinating, since you by no means consider seeds giving a number of taste like that.

Klimek: So what had been West African eating places in america like earlier than they began to develop into considered fantastic eating, the way in which they’re now?

Cummings-Yeates: Properly, West African eating places nonetheless are historically aunties cooking behind the counter, very informal, principally open for individuals who miss their house cooking, so nothing actually fancy. What has modified is that cooks, like Eric Adjepong, had fine-dining coaching. They realized learn how to do French delicacies and Italian, they usually have all these strategies, however they wished to current it with their very own delicacies and tradition.

So there’s the mixture of the fine-dining strategies and presentation with conventional West African components and, most significantly, conventional West African communal eating. That’s the factor that actually strikes me in any respect of those African fine-dining eating places is that it has the formality of fantastic eating and the aesthetics, but it surely’s very, very heat, and nearly all of them have communal eating the place you’re pressured to speak to folks, and the cooks are explaining the dishes, and it’s simply very social, which is a giant a part of African tradition.

Klimek: When did West African delicacies begin to develop into a part of the fine-dining house within the U.S.?

Cummings-Yeates: I’d say it’s comparatively latest, just because fantastic eating has obtained much more consideration due to our cooking exhibits. There have been a handful of African cooks on “Prime Chef” that has actually uncovered the delicacies. Individuals who is likely to be in small cities who may not have had consciousness of fantastic eating now, hastily, they know these high cooks they usually need to expertise it.

And the African cooks that had been on “Prime Chef” had the visibility and the backing to open these eating places, as a result of it’s costly. So I’d say in all probability within the final seven to eight years, we’ve been seeing constant illustration with fantastic eating and African eating places.

Klimek: Rosalind interviewed chef Mbaye for her piece in Smithsonian. She additionally spoke with a handful of different influential cooks across the nation, together with Ghanaian American chef Eric Adjepong.

Cummings-Yeates: Eric Adjepong grew up in New York, and he noticed these auntie eating places and actually, actually wished to reveal the delicacies that he was accustomed to to a wider public, however with a fine-dining presentation, as a result of he had all of this coaching that he wished to make use of to essentially showcase and provides a special spin to the meals that he was accustomed to. So it’s actually thrilling to listen to the tales of those cooks, as a result of their tales are mirrored within the meals.

Klimek: What does that fine-dining spin appear like? Would these eating places need to distinguish themselves from what you known as the “auntie eating places” that got here earlier? How do they convey that that is an elevated, rarefied vacation spot?

Cummings-Yeates: Properly, the factor that I’d say as a buyer, that is the factor that anyone accustomed to African meals would acknowledge, is that African meals, regardless of the place you might be within the continent, tends to be very hearty and really, very beneficiant when it comes to servings. However, after all, if you’re doing fantastic eating, most of those eating places have tasting menus, and the parts are small. That may be a very distinct distinction.

After all, they’re artfully plated, and since it’s a tasting menu, the parts aren’t going to be very large, however they’re going to be very intentional in order that all of them work collectively. And on the finish, you might be full. Additionally, after all, aesthetically, the decor goes to be a little bit bit extra refined. However I’d say most of these variations are principally superficial.

Klimek: Properly, I understand these eating places are totally different and the cooks are totally different, but when it’s doable to generalize, if you go into one among these locations and order off the tasting menu, what kinds of dishes are prone to be represented?

Cummings-Yeates: Ha. Yeah, that’s going to be onerous. I’d say, although, as a result of that is West African, you’re going to get a model of jollof. It relies on the chef, the way it’s going to be offered in a variation. I do know that Serigne, as a result of he’s actually taking part in up the Louisiana connection, he’s in all probability going to have some shrimp in his. So I’d count on to have a variation of jollof.

Additionally, stews. Stews are important to most West African cooking. It might be a fish stew, it might be a beef stew, it might be a lamb stew. These are hallmarks that I’d count on. However that’s the factor about these cooks, it’s actually refreshing how they give you presenting features of the delicacies in methods that could be not as acquainted to folks.

Klimek: Once we requested Rosalind if any particular dishes from any explicit restaurant stood out in her eating expertise, she pointed to chef Ayo Balogun of the restaurant Dept of Tradition in Brooklyn.

Cummings-Yeates: Ayo’s cheese course knocked me out, as a result of I’m like, “What? Wait, there’s cheese?” And he’s like, “Sure!” On this area of Nigeria the place he’s from, they produce cheese, and I don’t suppose I’ve ever had cheese in an African restaurant like that. And the flavors that he combines it with, it’s simply very, very memorable and sudden, as a result of it’s such as you simply don’t consider cheese and West African delicacies.

Klimek: Can we are saying, usually, what areas of Africa are pretty effectively represented in eating places within the U.S. now and which of them will not be?

Cummings-Yeates: Properly, that’s fairly simple, as a result of it goes on to the immigrant illustration. There are many Nigerian eating places as a result of there are many Nigerians within the U.S. Senegalese, Ghanaian, these are nations in West Africa which have giant populations, so you’re going to see the eating places opening for individuals who miss that a part of house.

Klimek: Rosalind additionally named a Burundian restaurant, known as Baobab Fare, in Detroit.

Cummings-Yeates: I wished to carry that up as a result of that’s East African, which isn’t quite common within the U.S., they usually have actually offered this unfamiliar delicacies to sufficient folks that it has actually, actually caught lots of people’s discover. The chef came visiting as a refugee after which introduced his spouse, they usually opened this restaurant. And he wished to present again to the group, as a result of he had been so supported. So it’s a really inspiring story.

Klimek: Has this been the sample the place initially, eating places cater to immigrants who need to have the meals that they grew up with, after which over time, they get written about and develop into this vacation spot for, effectively, white folks?

Cummings-Yeates: Not even simply white folks. I imply, Black People will not be all essentially accustomed to it, both. So my favourite Senegalese restaurant in Chicago is named Yassa, which is a really iconic Senegalese dish. And I began going to the restaurant, which was in the course of the South Aspect, a group that I like.

I’d go to on a regular basis. And I began noticing that there weren’t lots of people there, as a result of they, after all, had opened it up for the native Senegalese. And it simply so occurs in Chicago, many of the Senegalese inhabitants lives on the North Aspect. In order that they actually needed to try to join with folks locally who knew nothing in regards to the meals.

Klimek: Then Rosalind talked about Yassa on a preferred cooking present.

Cummings-Yeates: And your complete metropolis flocked to this restaurant, to the purpose the place they needed to increase. So more often than not, it’s nearly consciousness. As a result of, once more, this was a cooking present. In order that they got here into the restaurant, they interviewed the chef, they noticed the meals, they heard me discuss it, and that simply created this consciousness the place all people wished to attempt it. However earlier than, it was simply this restaurant they noticed. They didn’t know what Senegalese was, they didn’t know, they weren’t . So I actually do consider that publicity and consciousness is de facto vital.

Klimek: What does it imply to the African diaspora to see their tradition represented in eating places within the U.S., more and more?

Cummings-Yeates: It makes you are feeling seen, as a result of there’s so many features of the tradition that’s ignored, missed. And to have meals elevated and acknowledged and revered and cherished, it simply brings a number of optimistic emotions, that are vastly wanted, simply due to the struggle and the challenges that we now have on this nation.

Yeah, it’s feeling. It’s thrilling. I’m so excited for these cooks to have the ability to showcase their tradition and what they like to an viewers that’s simply discovering it. That’s additionally an ideal feeling to assist folks uncover various things and open their eyes. Yeah.

Klimek: Rosalind Cummings-Yeates has been writing in regards to the rise of West African delicacies into the fine-dining house for Smithsonian journal. You might also know her writing from the Chicago Tribune and Ebony journal, amongst different publications. Rosalind, thanks for a dialog that has made me very hungry for lunch, and pissed off by how boring my lunch goes to be.

Cummings-Yeates: Thanks a lot for having me. This was a lot enjoyable.

Klimek: To learn Rosalind Cummings-Yeates’ article about West African fantastic eating in America, head to You’ll additionally discover a hyperlink in our present notes.

Klimek: And now that we’re all good and hungry, how about a cocktail party reality? This one is greatest for eating by moonlight.

Kayla Randall: Hello. I’m Kayla Randall, digital museums editor at Smithsonian magazine. I’m a giant fan of the moon, and aren’t all of us? So I used to be studying the most recent questions and solutions featured in Ask Smithsonian, from the June subject of the journal. Somebody requested, “How did the moon find yourself spinning on its axis at precisely the identical pace because it rotates across the Earth in order that we at all times simply see one aspect of it?” And the reply, courtesy of astrophysicist Howard A. Smith, is synchronous rotation.

The moon’s rotation charge is similar as the speed it orbits the Earth, and gravity retains the moon locked into that synchronous rotation sample. The moon can also be slowly transferring away from Earth yearly. Now we’re speaking 1.5 to 2 inches. So once more, slowly. However nonetheless, to study that felt like realizing we’re rising other than a detailed good friend. So, moon, when you’re listening, I simply need to say for the report that regardless of how close to or far, we’ll at all times love you.

Klimek: “There’s Extra to That” is a manufacturing of Smithsonian journal and PRX Productions. From the journal, our group is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our group is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The chief producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode paintings is by Emily Lankiewicz, fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening.

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