At Dept of Culture, a soft white cheese called wara comes plated with stew — blended and cooked tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions, spiced like many Nigerians prefer it. Wara can be found in the north and north-central areas of Nigeria, the latter of which is the region veteran chef Ayo Balogun hails from. He opened the buzzy 15-seat Brooklyn restaurant, one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants of 2022, after winning the city over with a dinner series called Iya Eba in the late summer of 2020.
“I spent a week in Lagos with my uncle and one night he took me around. We went to Ikoyi Club, we went to eat at a place called Iya Eba,” Balogun says. “So, [that night] we went from some posh place to some dive place to some place under the bridge, it was just some wild night. And I’ve been chasing that ever since then. I want to create that sort of night.”
While the combination of Lagos’s high-end and everyday eateries inspired Balogun’s vision for Dept of Culture, it is ultimately, the chef’s north-central state of Kwara that underscores the cuisine at the restaurant, and is at the heart of the food he serves in dishes such as gbegiri soup, made from locust beans, often eaten alongside ewedu soup — a staple among Yoruba ethnic group regardless of region, made with jute leaves as its base — plus eba or àmàlà (the latter from unripe plantain flour).
“I let everybody know I’m cooking food from north-central Nigeria. I can speak with absolute authority on food from the north-central,” Balogun says. “If I say just Nigerian, if somebody pushes back and says ‘Oh, but what is it called in the east?’ I can’t do that [because I don’t know].” According to the chef, emphasizing his home region also allows diners to understand the diversity of Nigeria’s food cultures — and diners are more primed than ever to want to.
Diners wait weeks to score a reservation, landing Dept of Culture a leading role among the small but growing class of fine dining West African restaurants across the country. From Brooklyn Suya just a little over a mile away, to halfway across the country where Dozzy’s Grill is making waves in Chicago, there has been a marked increase in notable Nigerian restaurants in the last few years. West African cuisines more broadly are also having a moment in different forms, from fast casual to the fine dining experiences chefs like Balogun advance, throughout American cities.
For Balogun, presenting a Nigerian culinary experience under the fine dining label serves less to imitate an aesthetic that was for a long time not associated with African cuisine. To him, it’s a tribute to the art form of food presentation, as well as the pride with which he has long viewed the possibilities of his home food. “We are the custodians of our culture, a culture that maybe for a long time has been looked down on as inferior,” he says. “When we introduce it to the world in whichever fashion we do, it should be with absolute dignity. It’s important.”
Senegal-born chef and author Pierre Thiam, one of the modern pioneers of global West African fine dining, made a name for himself in New York City with his Bed-Stuy bistro/music venue Yolele in the early 2000s. He then operated celebrated restaurants in Lagos and Dakar from 2015 and 2018, respectively, before making the leap back to the U.S. for his hit restaurant Teranga, a counter-service spot which debuted in NYC in 2019. Teranga’s more casual format — and that it took three years to open in the U.S. — speaks to and challenges longstanding reactions to Africa and African food.
While the format is casual, Teranga doesn’t skimp on technique or culinary vision. “I don’t limit myself to Senegal [in my cooking], and it’s intentional. I think in West African cuisine, even though it’s various and rich, there’s a cultural unity that transcends borders,” Thiam says. “And that really is something that is telling about the culture. Those borders are not our borders, they are imposed on us.” To those looking to learn more, Teranga offers an education; its popularity speaks to a profound shift of West African cuisine in the American culinary landscape.
Thiam suggests that this recognition comes alongside a sort of (re)introduction of both the historical and contemporary contributions of the region specifically, and the continent at large, to the world. “The way Africa was being talked about was always negative,” says Thiam. “[W]hat has changed is that there is an audience that is very, very curious about foods from everywhere,” he says, pointing out the influence of the Food Network and the late Anthony Bourdain in having raised audience awareness of West African food.
This interest from American diners still feels new to Thiam, and it’s not without limits. The stubborn belief that African food may not be sophisticated enough to qualify as fine dining is something Thiam sees as persisting from his days working in Italian and French restaurants in the late ’80s. It’s a laughable perception to the Senegalese chef, who readily points out that, in the history of fine dining as a European construct, it’s easy to forget that many white-tablecloth spots today are serving, essentially, “evolved peasant food.” Chefs bringing West African cuisine into the American fine dining space have inevitably had to educate even the most interested customers.
As Thiam sees it, critics and diners alike need a better understanding of the depth of the food culture from the region of the continent he has taken great care to introduce to many people all over the world. “[West African cuisine] not only has sophistication through the way the food is prepared [but] through the layers of flavors, through the techniques of cuisines, techniques that we don’t even associate with African cultures,” he says, noting examples such as fermentation, smoking, and how even umami is central to the West African food experience. Thiam also cites the far reach of West Africa’s culinary influence in its diaspora (think Louisiana’s gumbo or northern Mexico’s tamales made with banana leaves) as evidence of its inherent depth; even before this moment, there was already an African presence in North America’s culinary culture.
Still, the chefs focusing on West African cooking at their U.S. restaurants today are confronting what NOLA-based, Senegal-born chef Serigne Mbaye describes as a lingering expectation that West African dining should be cheap. After moving to New Orleans from Senegal and working in the famous, almost 130-year-old New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace, Mbaye began to examine the food link between his home country and his new city. “I began to obtain more knowledge about the Creole, Cajun food and understand more of the connection, realizing the fact that most of the dishes in New Orleans [are] inspired by West Africa but particularly Senegal,” he says.
Having worked at Michelin-starred restaurants throughout the country, Mbaye says he believed that his home food could not only have the same attention, but that people would be willing to spend similar amounts of money on it. At his hit pop-up Dakar NOLA, which opened a physical space last November, Mbaye routinely sold out dinners and won critical acclaim. More than any other reason, Mbaye, like Balogun and Thiam, simply wanted to offer his home food in its already sophisticated glory alongside a nuanced visual presentation learned in his craft as a chef. “Based on all the experience that I accumulated throughout the years, I could easily go say, ‘I’m gonna do a French-inspired cuisine,’” Mbaye says. “But why should I do that when what I love to eat is Senegalese food, period? So why not create that experience using the food that I love?”
Looking ahead, the rise of West African fine dining has another key driver: American-born chefs of West African descent coming into their own.
Born and raised in New Jersey, chef Nana Wilmot felt a strong connection to Ghanaian food. She spent much of her time after school with her grandmother, who lived with the family until Wilmot was 14 after first arriving in the country to help with raising Wilmot’s brother and cousins who lived nearby. “My mom worked so even though I saw her cook, most of those day-to-day things were with my grandmother,” she says. “We teach a lot when we cook and it’s not just about what we’re cooking, it might be a story time that goes with it.” Wilmot’s grandmother eventually left to spend her remaining days in Ghana, passing on at 96, but Wilmot has fond memories of her grandmother’s culinary lessons even though they sometimes came as a result of gender roles, her being the eldest girl in her immediate family.
Since 2019, Wilmot’s roving pop-up, Love That I Knead Supper Club, has explored how West African food and that of its diaspora are linked. She also explores her own personal family history with food via cooking lessons and storytelling with events in Accra, New York City, and her home base, Philadelphia.
It’s not lost on Wilmot that she’s one of the few women in this West African fine dining renaissance, a difficult observation to overlook when cooking in many West African cultures is a gendered activity often considered the domain (and burden) of women. Thiam, who always recognizes the women that taught him to cook in his books, says the lack of West African women chefs in the scene is a failure of West African customs and not giving credit where it is due. “West African cuisine wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for the tradition of passing the recipes from mother to daughter. ... What your mother is teaching you as a young girl in Africa is what I would call cooking with the senses,” Thiam says. “Men took it in our kitchens and get all the glory for it.”
“It’s really hard for a lot of Black women to get through. Like, it’s exceptionally hard for us,” says Wilmot, but she believes that chefs like herself can make a difference by being a source of support to others. “You just gotta start rallying the troops because I know they’re out there.”
For his part, Balogun at Dept of Culture is thinking of doing some of that “rallying” by creating residencies at the restaurant where West African chefs can learn techniques, methods, and presentation. Using his restaurant as a launching pad for other West African restaurants not only bolsters the future of the cuisine; Balogun hopes it may also help correct the gender imbalance in fine dining. His clearest dream: more Nigerian restaurants by more Nigerian chefs with that desire to create a spectacular dining experience as a way to honor their culture. “After they’re done with the residency, they could go do something and people will go and check it out if the person does it with care and absolute dignity,” he says.
Meanwhile, Wilmot connects all the interest in West African culture and cuisine — she calls it a “great awakening” — to the seeming rise in the country’s consciousness of anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. She says that awakening prompted her and many of her Black and African colleagues to reflect on how they might represent their cultures in food. “We’re turning more inward to ourselves to learn more about what we have,” she says. It’s creating, she believes, not only a sense of pride, but the perfect conditions for creativity in cooking within the culture. “We’ve been empowered to really feel like I can do this with something that feels like home.”
Kovie Biakolo is a journalist, writer, and lecturer specializing in culture, identity, and multiculturalism; her debut book Foremothers: 500 Years of Heroines from the African Diaspora is set to be published in 2024/2025.
Correction: March 2, 2023, 11:30 a.m. This article was corrected to reflect that Teranga was not Pierre Thiam’s first restaurant in the U.S.