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

The James Beard Award-winning Dakar NOLA is at the forefront of a generation of fine-dining establishments determined to educate foodies about the true origins of “Southern” cuisine

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

African cuisine has always been well represented in the United States, particularly in dishes characterized as “Southern” in origin, like gumbo or hoppin’ john. But even before chef Serigne Mbaye’s New Orleans eatery Dakar NOLA was named the Best New Restaurant of 2024 at the James Beard Awards this week, the contributions of the African diaspora to the American diet had at last begun to enjoy a long-overdue reappraisal via reality television, Netflix docuseries and, most important, a number of widely praised dining establishments: If you want to book a table at Tatiana in Manhattan, Dept of Culture in Brooklyn or Kann in Portland, you’d better plan ahead, because their tables are often booked up well in advance.

In this episode of “There’s More to That,” Smithsonian contributor Rosalind Cummings-Yeates explains how the ascendancy of pan-African cuisine from “auntie” restaurants into the rarefied fine dining sphere is part of a larger and more meaningful campaign of cultural reclamation. And Mbaye tells us why it was so important to him to make Dakar NOLA a showcase of the distinctive flavors of Senegal, where he spent his formative years.

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Chris Klimek: Chef Serigne Mbaye was born in Harlem but spent much of his youth living with his family in Senegal. His mom had owned a restaurant in New York before he was born. Eventually, he moved back to the States and, as an adult, worked his way up in restaurants and culinary school. But something really clicked when he started working in New Orleans: From beignets to jambalaya, chef Serigne could see Senegalese influence. And then he started to realize why.

Serigne Mbaye: So where I’m from, in Senegal, is an island called Gorée Island, which is one of the islands that the Door of No Return is, and our people used to get shipped out of here.

Klimek: The Door of No Return is a place where millions of enslaved people were held before they were sent across the ocean to America. And many of those people landed directly in New Orleans.

Mbaye: And in return, our people got here and adapted to a culture. And I think also had impact on the culinary scene, what we know as Creole Cajun. And think about Creole Cajun: Without those Africans, what do you really have? It’s definitely not rice. It’s definitely not stews.

Klimek: Chef Serigne’s restaurant, Dakar NOLA, is a place to honor the connections between African and American cuisine. But, more than that, it’s a place where Serigne wants to challenge people’s perceptions of fine dining.

Mbaye: You don’t think that okra should be respected as much as foie gras is? What makes those ingredients so special? What makes our ingredients seem so cheap? I mean, our technique is beyond, more time-consuming than cooking a foie gras. You get a freaking foie gras that’s cut nicely, you squirt it, hot-pan sear it, a little bit of salt.

You flip it with some cream and butter, with some vegetables that have been pureed, put it underneath, and a little bit of garnish, and you think that’s worth it? Versus okra that’s been smothered down for hours and hours and hours until the sliminess comes out, you add the seafood, is dehydrated seafood, that took forever to produce. When do we value African food as the same value French, Italian and all these other great cuisines?

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates: This is a particularly moving story for me, because I have the same heritage.

Klimek: Rosalind Cummings-Yeates recently wrote a feature about the rise of West African fine dining in the U.S. for Smithsonian magazine.

Cummings-Yeates: Serigne Mbaye has a very critically acclaimed restaurant that is up for a James Beard Award. Those are basically American renditions of Senegalese food, because most of the Africans that had been transported during the slave trade to Louisiana have Senegalese heritage, and Dakar NOLA is Serigne’s way of showcasing and making people aware of those connections, but with a fine-dining spin.

Klimek: Serigne is now one of a cohort of chefs that’s making West African cuisine a major food trend in America. And while the culinary contributions of the African diaspora are as old as the United States itself, it’s now being recognized in new, exciting, often meaningful ways, especially in fine-dining spaces.

From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show that loves a dinner party. In this episode: an exploration of African cuisine in America. I’m Chris Klimek.

Klimek: Why do you think West African cuisine hasn’t been more recognized in the U.S., and why do you think that’s starting to change now?

Cummings-Yeates: Well, I think it’s a complex issue. As a travel writer, I see how people travel to Africa and how they connect with Africa. And typically, it is not through the culture; it is through the animals, the nature, the wildlife. For instance, when people go to Thailand, they’re always eating the food, and they come back and, of course, they want to recreate that experience. I don’t think a lot of Americans do that when they go to West African countries.

There’s also a racism issue that is connected to it. Africa, in general, is still associated with poverty and famine, and I have heard people say, “Oh, African cuisine—what? They have food?” I mean, it sounds ignorant, but I’ve heard it enough times to know that people think this.

So all of those factors make West African food not as familiar to a lot of people, even though most major cities always have these restaurants, always. But you have to have an awareness for it. And I think the awareness is increasing, because we have African chefs that are visible now and they are introducing the food to a wider audience.

Klimek: Do you remember your first time eating West African cuisine?

Cummings-Yeates: It must have been maybe 20 years ago. I think it was at someone’s house, and I’m sure it was Nigerian food, because I have a lot of Nigerian friends. So I vaguely do remember having jollof and fish stew for the first time, maybe 20, 25 years ago. I loved the flavors. I hadn’t had anything exactly like it, but it reminded me of familiar dishes, like gumbo and red rice and things like that.

Klimek: What is jollof?

Cummings-Yeates: Jollof rice is simply rice that is cooked in a tomato sauce to give it flavor. So it is very similar to red rice that’s very common throughout the South.

Klimek: Rosalind reminded us that a lot of ingredients and dishes considered mainstream in America, and especially in Southern cuisine, originated from Africa.

Cummings-Yeates: During the Atlantic slave trade, most of the enslaved Africans that came over were from West Africa, and they brought their cooking traditions with them. A lot of people think of Southern cuisine, it’s like, that’s basically African cuisine, because that’s who was doing the cooking. Deep-frying things, barbecuing things, heavily seasoning things, those are all African traditions.

And even some of the rice that we consume mostly in the United States is African rice. And it was brought over, and there were specific people who knew how to grow that rice, and they cooked it and prepared it in the ways that they used to when they were in Africa, and it just evolved into jambalaya and gumbo and hoppin’ john. But all of those are familiar dishes here in America that really are African. It’s just that people don’t realize that.

Klimek: That was one of the things that moved me most about your story: Enslaved Africans were able to preserve their traditions through food in a way that they were not allowed to through clothing or other forms of cultural expression.

Cummings-Yeates: Yeah, and it’s really inspiring when you think about it, because I would’ve thought, OK, you’re in a place that really does not resemble the landscape of the countries that you come from. So you think, well, how are you going to recreate those dishes when you don’t really have those ingredients? But because they brought some of the ingredients with them, a lot of times they had their own little gardens to eat from. Some of plants and dishes were able to be transferred here. Watermelon was transferred here from Africa. So it is fascinating when you dig into that history.

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

Cummings-Yeates: Black-eyed peas is another dish that’s a staple throughout West Africa that, of course, you can never go too many places in the South and not have black-eyed peas. Red beans and rice also, sometimes called hoppin’ john. Almost all of the so-called Southern dishes are really African. The greens that are very popular and the way that they are cooked down into almost a stew, that is African. I’m glad people are finally recognizing them for what they are.

Klimek: So I realize this is a very, very broad question, but how does African cuisine vary from region to region? Is it the ingredients, is it the style of preparation or the seasonings? What are the major distinguishing factors?

Cummings-Yeates: Well, as you know, Africa is a huge continent. It’s the second largest. There are 54 countries, and the landscape varies. And that, of course, is going to inform the food. In East Africa, because you have a lot of influences from the spice trade, you will find a lot of spices that are probably more familiar with Asian cuisine. But because of that history of the spice trade in the Horn of Africa, you’re going to find the turmeric and the ginger and the spices informing that cuisine.

West Africa, certain parts of the region, you have heavy meat eaters, a lot of beef, a lot of lamb, but other regions, it’s much more vegetarian. Again, depending on the traditions, you might have a Muslim population, you might have a heavily Christian or a heavily African religion, and that informs the food.

Countries on the coast, of course, have a lot more seafood, a lot more fish. Yeah, there’s just so many things that inform the cuisine, which is why it’s really bizarre when you think about it’s really being just explored and expanding now, because there’s just so many different cooking styles that the American public hasn’t really even seen yet.

Klimek: Are there any other seasonings that are truly distinct to West African food?

Cummings-Yeates: There are so many seasonings, but I’m trying to think of any that I could explain. One flavor that’s distinct to most West African cuisine is palm oil. A lot of the flavors are started in palm oil, and that’s a very distinct flavor. It’s heavy, it’s savory, and it also gives us distinct color. It gives a reddish-orange color to a lot of the food. That’s something that I can recognize right away. I mean, I can look at dish and see if it’s got palm oil, actually.

Melon seeds are very popular in Nigerian cuisine. The mango seeds, they use seeds in ways that I’ve never seen before. Because when we think of seeds, we think of maybe sunflower seeds or something like that, that’ll add a crunch. But seeds are used for flavor, and it’s just interesting, because you never think of seeds giving a lot of flavor like that.

Klimek: So what were West African restaurants in the United States like before they started to become regarded as fine dining, the way they are now?

Cummings-Yeates: Well, West African restaurants still are traditionally aunties cooking behind the counter, very casual, mostly open for people who miss their home cooking, so nothing really fancy. What has changed is that chefs, like Eric Adjepong, had fine-dining training. They learned how to do French cuisine and Italian, and they have all those techniques, but they wanted to present it with their own cuisine and culture.

So there is the combination of the fine-dining techniques and presentation with traditional West African ingredients and, most importantly, traditional West African communal dining. That’s the thing that really strikes me at all of these African fine-dining restaurants is that it has the formality of fine dining and the aesthetics, but it’s very, very warm, and almost all of them have communal dining where you’re forced to talk to people, and the chefs are explaining the dishes, and it’s just very social, which is a big part of African culture.

Klimek: When did West African cuisine start to become part of the fine-dining space in the U.S.?

Cummings-Yeates: I would say it’s relatively recent, simply because fine dining has received a lot more attention because of our cooking shows. There have been a handful of African chefs on “Top Chef” that has really exposed the cuisine. People who might be in small towns who might not have had awareness of fine dining now, all of a sudden, they know these top chefs and they want to experience it.

And the African chefs that were on “Top Chef” had the visibility and the backing to open these restaurants, because it’s expensive. So I would say probably in the last seven to eight years, we’ve been seeing consistent representation with fine dining and African restaurants.

Klimek: Rosalind interviewed chef Mbaye for her piece in Smithsonian. She also spoke with a handful of other influential chefs around the country, including Ghanaian American chef Eric Adjepong.

Cummings-Yeates: Eric Adjepong grew up in New York, and he saw those auntie restaurants and really, really wanted to expose the cuisine that he was familiar with to a wider public, but with a fine-dining presentation, because he had all of this training that he wanted to use to really showcase and give a different spin to the food that he was familiar with. So it’s really exciting to hear the stories of these chefs, because their stories are reflected in the food.

Klimek: What does that fine-dining spin look like? Would these restaurants want to distinguish themselves from what you called the “auntie restaurants” that came earlier? How do they convey that this is an elevated, rarefied destination?

Cummings-Yeates: Well, the thing that I would say as a customer, this is the thing that anybody familiar with African food would recognize, is that African food, no matter where you are in the continent, tends to be very hearty and very, very generous in terms of servings. But, of course, when you’re doing fine dining, most of these restaurants have tasting menus, and the portions are small. That is a very distinct difference.

Of course, they’re artfully plated, and because it’s a tasting menu, the portions aren’t going to be very big, but they’re going to be very intentional so that they all work together. And at the end, you are full. Also, of course, aesthetically, the decor is going to be a little bit more refined. But I would say most of those differences are mostly superficial.

Klimek: Well, I realize these restaurants are different and the chefs are different, but if it’s possible to generalize, when you go into one of these places and order off the tasting menu, what sorts of dishes are likely to be represented?

Cummings-Yeates: Ha. Yeah, that’s going to be hard. I would say, though, because this is West African, you are going to get a version of jollof. It depends on the chef, how it’s going to be presented in a variation. I know that Serigne, because he is really playing up the Louisiana connection, he’s probably going to have some shrimp in his. So I would expect to have a variation of jollof.

Also, stews. Stews are essential to most West African cooking. It could be a fish stew, it could be a beef stew, it could be a lamb stew. Those are hallmarks that I would expect. But that’s the thing about these chefs, it’s really refreshing how they come up with presenting aspects of the cuisine in ways that may be not as familiar to people.

Klimek: When we asked Rosalind if any specific dishes from any particular restaurant stood out in her dining experience, she pointed to chef Ayo Balogun of the restaurant Dept of Culture in Brooklyn.

Cummings-Yeates: Ayo’s cheese course knocked me out, because I’m like, “What? Wait, there’s cheese?” And he’s like, “Yes!” In this region of Nigeria where he’s from, they produce cheese, and I don’t think I’ve ever had cheese in an African restaurant like that. And the flavors that he combines it with, it’s just very, very memorable and unexpected, because it’s like you just don’t think of cheese and West African cuisine.

Klimek: Can we say, generally, what regions of Africa are fairly well represented in restaurants in the U.S. now and which ones are not?

Cummings-Yeates: Well, that’s pretty easy, because it goes directly to the immigrant representation. There are lots of Nigerian restaurants because there are lots of Nigerians in the U.S. Senegalese, Ghanaian, these are countries in West Africa that have large populations, so you are going to see the restaurants opening for people who miss that part of home.

Klimek: Rosalind also named a Burundian restaurant, called Baobab Fare, in Detroit.

Cummings-Yeates: I wanted to bring that up because that’s East African, which is not very common in the U.S., and they have really presented this unfamiliar cuisine to enough people that it has really, really caught a lot of people’s notice. The chef came over as a refugee and then brought his wife, and they opened this restaurant. And he wanted to give back to the community, because he had been so supported. So it’s a very inspiring story.

Klimek: Has this been the pattern where initially, restaurants cater to immigrants who want to have the food that they grew up with, and then over time, they get written about and become this destination for, well, white people?

Cummings-Yeates: Not even just white people. I mean, Black Americans are not all necessarily familiar with it, either. So my favorite Senegalese restaurant in Chicago is called Yassa, which is a very iconic Senegalese dish. And I started going to the restaurant, which was in the middle of the South Side, a community that I love.

I would go to all the time. And I started noticing that there weren’t a lot of people there, because they, of course, had opened it up for the local Senegalese. And it just so happens in Chicago, most of the Senegalese population lives on the North Side. So they really had to try and connect with people in the community who knew nothing about the food.

Klimek: Then Rosalind talked about Yassa on a popular cooking show.

Cummings-Yeates: And the entire city flocked to this restaurant, to the point where they had to expand. So most of the time, it’s just about awareness. Because, again, this was a cooking show. So they came into the restaurant, they interviewed the chef, they saw the food, they heard me talk about it, and that just created this awareness where everybody wanted to try it. But before, it was just this restaurant they saw. They didn’t know what Senegalese was, they didn’t know, they weren’t interested. So I really do believe that exposure and awareness is really important.

Klimek: What does it mean to the African diaspora to see their culture represented in restaurants in the U.S., increasingly?

Cummings-Yeates: It makes you feel seen, because there’s so many aspects of the culture that’s ignored, overlooked. And to have food elevated and acknowledged and respected and loved, it just brings a lot of positive feelings, which are greatly needed, just because of the fight and the challenges that we have in this country.

Yeah, it’s a good feeling. It’s exciting. I’m so excited for these chefs to be able to showcase their culture and what they love to an audience that is just discovering it. That’s also a great feeling to help people discover different things and open their eyes. Yeah.

Klimek: Rosalind Cummings-Yeates has been writing about the rise of West African cuisine into the fine-dining space for Smithsonian magazine. You may also know her writing from the Chicago Tribune and Ebony magazine, among other publications. Rosalind, thank you for a conversation that has made me very hungry for lunch, and frustrated by how boring my lunch is going to be.

Cummings-Yeates: Thanks so much for having me. This was so much fun.

Klimek: To read Rosalind Cummings-Yeates’ article about West African fine dining in America, head to You’ll also find a link in our show notes.

Klimek: And now that we’re all good and hungry, how about a dinner party fact? This one is best for dining by moonlight.

Kayla Randall: Hi. I’m Kayla Randall, digital museums editor at Smithsonian magazine. I’m a big fan of the moon, and aren’t we all? So I was reading the latest questions and answers featured in Ask Smithsonian, from the June issue of the magazine. Someone asked, “How did the moon end up spinning on its axis at exactly the same speed as it rotates around the Earth so that we always just see one side of it?” And the answer, courtesy of astrophysicist Howard A. Smith, is synchronous rotation.

The moon’s rotation rate is the same as the rate it orbits the Earth, and gravity keeps the moon locked into that synchronous rotation pattern. The moon is also slowly moving away from Earth every year. Now we’re talking 1.5 to 2 inches. So again, slowly. But still, to learn that felt like realizing we’re growing apart from a close friend. So, moon, if you’re listening, I just want to say for the record that no matter how near or far, we will always love you.

Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork 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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