Article: African Restaurants in NYC

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[. . .] Around 4 pm, he goes to Ponty where things are being set up for the dinner shift. During dinner, Elhadji bounds through the restaurant, helping to expedite orders and making sure to greet customers. He completes his day at Manhattan home with a two-hour session on his computer to check email, stay in touch with vendors and distributors.

A variety of factors have helped propel this wave of African restaurants. Some are connected to immigration, a growing familiarity with this population, and an overall trend towards a more adventurous taste in eating. Serving African cuisine presents certain challenges. It can be harder to find African chefs due to the relative dearth of qualified people even in New York City. However, New York's African immigrants have made this simpler through networking and collaboration. However, other challenges such as the very high cost of living in all corners of New York, the very high cost of operating a business in the same and lack of money and resources for newer immigrants all present challenges. However, people like Elhadji have proven that even these details and challenges can be overcome.

However, experts see the rise of African restaurants as a natural progression. These new immigrants started small by operating out of their apartments or hotel rooms via the selling simpler food choices. After gaining some experience and profits, they commenced in getting their bearings as street vendors and this allowed them to expand. By starting small, they could determine what was popular with their clientele and with the average New Yorker's palate. Thus this allowed them to get their feet under them as business-people. It also gave them a time to make connections and to organize before paying rent and hiring employees. They learned to omit certain ingredients either because they were unable to source the ingredients here or import ingredients to keep the authentic tastes of the dishes.

One of Elhadji's fellow Senegalese that is doing quite well is Pierre Thiam, who is a Senegalese chef. He notes that his first restaurant was not a traditional one but he was able to make it work nonetheless. He says it manifested as a bistro and that the Bedford-Stuyvesant area, commonly referred to affectionately as Bed-Stuy (pronounced Bed-Sty), had not seen a place like before and it was actively embraced and enjoyed by the local populace. He says that many considered it a "destination" rather than just another place to eat. Pierre is a purist that wants to keep the purity and power of African cooking. He notes that French cooking use to be a gold standard but that it has tailed off over the last decade or so, at least in the United States. Further, he notes that a lot of the predecessors to African food in terms of coming to prominence including French, Chinese, Italian, Indian, Thai, Japanese and Mexican actually takes some or many queues from African food. Thiam insists that tamales, a food staple commonly embraced and used by Mexican and other Latino food types, actually originated in Africa. Further, he insists that Africans are the ones that brought rice to Africa and it's a valid question to ask where the United States and the rest of the West would be without rice. Certainly, the Chinese or some other food genre would have done so if Africa did not, but it is certainly still a valid question worthy of answering.

Papa Diagne at Jollo's at home in Brooklyn says he had never cooked in his life but he changed that by teaching and learning himself how to do so. He started with cooking traditional foods like rice and stew in America with his siblings. When he lost his job, he got requests from lots of friends to cook for them and this led to him getting 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."?Diagne has since gone on to impart his knowledge and delegate some of his duties to his children. They do not yet cook but they do take orders and help in the administration of the restaurant not related to the making of the food. Something unique to restaurants in general but that Diagne can claim is the fact that he borrowed no money to get his restaurant going or keep it operating. He says this is a liberating fact as he is not on the hook with anyone in terms of money or resources owed back. He says it is true freedom to realize one's dream and not have to attribute one's progress to the deep pockets of a bank or another person. He adds that it helps him greatly to love what he does and that this keeps him going. However, while he knows much about cooking, he refuses to call himself a chef. He calls it art and showcasing the food in line with the types of food prevalent in Western culture.

Location continues to be a vital factor, says Ahmed Abdellah, owner of Accra Restaurant in Harlem: "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. Our Harlem location attracts everyone. Caucasians come to try something different." Abdelleh goes on to echo a theme that is prevalent from several different owners, that being that inspectors and regulators can be exceedingly punitive and scruitinzing of restaurants. An example that Ahmed points to is the "A" grade he received from the food inspects and he boasts that he has to "bust his ass" to get that grade. He also has very high aspirations about the future of his restaurant, stating that he has a huge restaurant and that he could very well be the next McDonald's. Indeed, the family has three restaurants in total with one being in Harlem, one is in the main part of the Bronx while the other is in the College Avenue part of the Bronx. Ahmed is successful in his own right, though. Only 32 years old, he shared that he is a product of Monroe College for cooling and culinary skill. Like others engaged in his trade, he imports the authentic spices he wants to use including yagi and suya powder. The import in bulk as they often come in hundred pound bags and comes straight from Ghana. He refuses to use any other source for his spices. His store opened in Harlem in March 2013 and his father pushed him to be the face of the restaurant. However, he also pushes himself to be humble and a follower as is needed to learn and hone one's craft. Not unlike many other American-born business owners as well as immigrants open restaurants, Ahmed has embraced the marketing tactics of today including the use of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. However, he also notes that not unlike the other African food stops in the area, a lot of his business is word of mouth between friends and family of those that frequent his restaurant.

Akin Akinsaya, founder of New York African Restaurant Week, is also an African immigrant from Nigeria. Held most recently in April 2014, the celebration of African food in New York has only been around for two years. However, it has made a clear impact and has the buy-in of many of the African and other restaurants in the area including Elhadji's Ponty Bistro, Farafina Lounge, Tolani Wine Bar, Queen of Sheba, Accra Restaurant, and that is just in the Manhattan area. The most recent festival offered patrons a three course Prix Fixe meal at the reasonable price of $16.95 for lunch and less than $25 for dinner.

Because the African restaurants scattered around New York also cater to immigrant communities, they also tend to offer an array of unfamiliar flavors. For example, Sisay Kassa, founder of the Ethiopian restaurant Lalibela in Gramercy Park, notes that friends and family help import the right spices. "Ethiopians can tell the difference in spices. I get my spices from Ethiopia. I got my family to bring it." Examples of these spices include the two Ethiopian spice staples Berbere and Niter Kibbeh. Berbere is a mix of red chili, garlic, paprika and salt, among other spices. Niter Kibbeh is an enhanced and flavored butter. Other spices specific to Ethiopian cuisine are Alicha Kimem, Koseret, Beso Bela, Mitten Shiro, Korerima Ground and Mitmita. Mashood uses the same approach to stock Buka with the right ingredients to give his Nigerian clientele the true taste of home. It used to be extremely hard to get legitimate and authentic spices from Africa into the United States but the explosion of global e-commerce including even natively American vendors and websites like Amazon.com have allowed sellers from all over the world to sell their authentic wares… [END OF PREVIEW]

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