Last week I travelled to Washington DC for a special gathering of minds passionate about African food. As I listened to culinary greats discuss exciting new projects and made connections with cultural critics and African food entrepreneurs bringing their products to market, I knew that this was more than a gathering – this was the beginnings of a movement to push African food forward in the culture.
Led by DC based Chef and food entrepreneur, Chef Hiyaw Gebreyohannes and his wife and communications professional Chloe Louvouezo, AfroFoodTalk is a new series that brings together voices in African food to foster dialogue, connections and more. As a trailblazer in Ethiopian cuisine, Chef Hiyaw is in a unique position to drive this conversation on the future of African food. He first learned his craft in the kitchen of his mother’s Ethiopian Restaurant and after trying his hand at his own restaurant in NYC he vowed to never get back in the restaurant industry. Instead he saw an opportunity to bring Ethiopian food to the masses and created Taste of Ethiopia, a packaged Ethiopian food line. He made waves as the first to ever create a national Ethiopian packaged food brand in the US and continues to make waves with his new restaurant concept, Gorsha. Gorsha is a fast casual eatery that serves up a fresh take on Ethiopian cuisine replacing the standard injera platter with an Ethiopian inspired bowl. Hiyaw has spent the last several years pushing Ethiopian food forward, while taking risks and introducing new ideas and ways to serve African food to the masses. Throughout his culinary journey collaboration has been a key to his success and AfroFoodTalk is a new way to foster connections in the African culinary community.
The curated guest list at AfroFoodtalk ranged from renown West African chefs like Pierre Thiam (author of Senegal cookbook and new restaurant Teranga) to event producer, Maame of the food focused events company Dine Diaspora. In addition to chefs and food entrepreneurs, there were media personalities like the hosts of the Africanist podcasts, PR professionals, marketing execs and former athletes. Every person in the room had a personal connection to African cuisine but also vastly different perspectives given their unique position in the industry. Hiyaw led the guests in a discussion that explored important issues in African food. Some of the themes included:
Preserving/celebrating our own food ways and culinary practices
You can taste Africa in so much of the southern and Caribbean food we enjoy today, yet that understanding of where ingredients originated and how African food practices survived slavery is not often shared. Throughout the discussion chefs shared their thoughts on this.
- Chef Dadisi weighed in on this topic, referencing a number of chefs and authors to check out like Chef J B Dennis and Toni Tipton-Martin who were doing the critical work of preserving Black food history.
- Stanley Lumax, Founder of African Chop House talked about the importance of us creating our own awards to celebrate our chefs rather than waiting on the others to recognize our greatness.
- Chef Pierre Thiam spoke about how important it was for him to seek out the people carried this cultural food knowledge. He learned from Senegalese mothers and women in the community while adding his chef techniques to create his cookbook.
Maintaining authenticity while making African food accessible to the masses
This was a heated issue as many of the chefs had encountered challenges translating African cuisine and breaking into western markets. Chef Hiyaw lamented how Ethiopian aunties did not see his food as truly Ethiopian because he broke away from tradition and invited others in the room to discuss if there is space for experimentation.
- Chef Morou, a DC based chef from Ivory Coast, spoke about the importance of making African food accessible to a western palate. He joked how when asking an African friend how they knew when their stew was ready, and the answer was that they know it’s ready when the oil floats on to the top. In the west, that’s the opposite of what chefs do- in fact they call it a broken sauce. The same goes for meat, many Africans prepare their meat in a way that results in very chewy meat. He notes that chefs can use the same flavours we love while adapting recipes to fit our audience in the west.
Collaboration & Support
The main theme throughout the evening was finding ways to support each other. We need to work with each other to push our food forward and everyone from the event producers to food entrepreneurs and creatives has something to add to this movement.
By the end of the evening, I along with each guest left with new insights on African food and a deeper understanding of the different pieces of the puzzle in pushing African food forward. There was a feeling of hope and anticipation in the air and I’m excited to see what happens next. One thing for sure is that #AfroFoodTalk was a much needed and appreciated event. It gave Black creatives, culinary professionals and entrepreneurs a chance to connect, a safe space to challenge each other and an opportunity to work together as a collective. Be sure to follow @Hiyaw and the hashtag #AfroFoodTalk to see what’s next.