Chefs Bringing African Cuisine to America Share Their Journey

Erika Goldring/Getty Images for ESSENCE

African culture is everywhere.

Music is more popular than ever thanks to Afrobeats and Amapiano. The influence of style and fashion is visible everywhere. And movies from countries like Nigeria and South Africa, known for their film industry, are everywhere on Netflix.

But perhaps one of the most coveted aspects of the culture is its delicious food. Aside from the comical jollof wars, the continent’s cuisine is truly making waves in the mainstream, including the foodie world. So it made sense for us to bring together some of the biggest names in New Orleans and the United States at large who are preparing popular dishes from African countries for a conversation at the Food and Wine activation of the 2024 ESSENCE Festival of Culture. Among them were chef Eros, behind Los Angeles’ Nigerian restaurant Ilé; Addis Nola’s Prince Lobo, who is bringing Ethiopian cuisine to The Big Easy; and Serigne Mbaye, the recent 2024 James Beard Award winner for Best New Restaurant for his NOLA hotspot Dakar NOLA.

For Mbaye, who grew up in Harlem, he saw Senegalese cuisine as a way to bring people together, but he wanted to see it valued in the industry. “When I first moved to New Orleans, I didn’t see African cuisine as a high-end restaurant, and that was my motivation for everything,” he said. “Over the last 15 years in the industry, I knew that our people belonged. To be able to prove that, I had to work in some of the best restaurants just to gain experience. It gave me the knowledge, the respect, and the understanding of the industry.” Dakar NOLA has been open for 18 months and is already an award-winning establishment.

“I grew up in New York and Harlem and was born into the hospitality industry,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with my mom and worked in the kitchen. Being in the kitchen with my mom, I got to know her, I got to know life, I got to know food, and it made me want to continue living the life that I do today, which is to become a chef.”

Chef Eros, who had opened successful restaurants and a catering business in Lagos, Nigeria, decided to make the jump to the United States and open his space, Ilé, in Los Angeles, of all places.

“You know Nigerians by now. We are bold. Go big or go home,” he said. “For me, my ethos has always been to put West African cuisine on the global map and most importantly, to make it respectable. As a Nigerian, we have been misunderstood by most, and for me, as a proud Nigerian, I wanted the pride of my culture to shine through, especially in the cuisine.”

“I’m a culinary artist because I use food as a medium to tell the stories of my people or my culture and to make not only myself proud, but everyone around me proud to connect the dots,” Eros added. “And so coming to Los Angeles was basically saying I’m going to the entertainment capital to reach a very white audience.”

His efforts have been successful, as Ilé is a popular spot in Los Angeles, and he was recently featured in a Chase Bank commercial with Michael B. Jordan and other jollof rice food favorites.

“We introduced the unified Jollof rice which tells the story of the combination of all of us, because together we are stronger, we are stronger together as one. And that is why we preach the story and the ethos of one people and one Jollof. That ad has become a trend, and it is on the world stage, so much so that it was also presented at Cannes,” he said. “And so for me, going to Los Angeles and being there and being able to put West African culture on the culinary map and sitting next to brothers like him who are doing the same thing makes me proud. I can beat my chest and say I am African. I am African through and through and I am proud of it.”

And for Prince Lobo, his choice to bring Ethiopian cuisine to the masses was born out of a desire to celebrate both his culture and his mother.

“One day she came to me and said, ‘I have a dream. I want to bring Ethiopian cuisine to New Orleans. I see African culture everywhere I go, I see the clothes, I see the food, but it doesn’t exist in the way that I imagine it,’” he recalls. “That’s the drive, that passion, that love that I was raised with.”

He added: “It was just me and her. I came to the United States when I was two years old. I was sick as a baby. I was born in Angola, but my mother, who was Ethiopian, left when she was 13. So she kept those cultures in her heart, she remembered those dishes, those recipes. And every time she cooked, every time she had the opportunity to cook, I was right there with her. So every time she came to me and told me about this dream, this vision, I was like, ‘You know what? She gave up everything just to have this happen at a young age, just so I could fulfill all my dreams. You left so I could have the chance to do what I wanted. And I thought it would be a wasted opportunity if I didn’t join her on this journey. And it really shows the love of culture, the passion of people.”

All three men pride themselves on preparing the dishes they grew up with for foodies embracing African flavors across the country. And all three say it was their mothers (and grandmothers and aunts, too) who helped them do so. These women all taught them how to cook or bring to life the dishes they love that can now be found at Addis Nola, Ilé Bistro, and Dakar NOLA. And they’re grateful to see more and more people like them opening spaces that put African cuisine on the map.

“More and more artists are coming into the space and taking these ingredients and processes without losing their authenticity, being respected for what they are, and gradually finding ways to make them more presentable, to make them more appreciated, to make them more appetizing, these dishes are now celebrated,” says Chef Eros. “And that’s what’s happening with more and more chefs coming in to cook West African dishes. With that flair, that avant-garde approach, these dishes are becoming more celebrated. As my brothers have said here, this is Africa for the world.”

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