Is African cuisine making a comeback?
“Sub-Saharan African cuisine is nowhere to be seen on the global culinary scene”, said Alexandre Bella Ola almost ten years ago. The Cameroonian chef opened his restaurant in Montreuil in 1994, and hasn’t changed his mind since. In fact, he’s more convinced than ever.
We tried to understand why African cuisine isn’t a leading figure in French restaurants.
Certain types of international cuisine are widespread in French streets and homes, despite a relatively small number of migrants. Examples can be found in Italian cuisine (5.3% of immigration in France), Turkish cuisine (4.4% of immigration in France) and Chinese and Japanese cuisine (both representing 3% of immigration in France). Nevertheless, thousands of pizzas, kebabs, spring rolls and sushi are enjoyed every day by the French, and that’s without mentioning the fast-food culture. But while more than 13% of expats living in France are from Sub-Saharan Africa, enthusiasm for African cuisine hasn’t followed suit.
According to chef Bella Ola, who has owned the Rio Dos Camaraos with his wife for more than 20 years, there are several reasons, and several aspects of African cuisine that can explain this trend.
First off, it lacks representation as there are so few people to represent it. A lack of initiatives is not the problem, but a lack of skills:
“African cuisine is a niche market. There’s a vacuum. Too many people want to pretend to be restaurant-owners because there’s money to be made. But they don’t have the skill and go about it the wrong way. They forget it’s a true profession.”
Alexandre has seen a long list of restaurants open, stumble and quickly disappear over the years, often through insufficient skill and sometimes a lack of innovation, which many take a very dim view of, says the chef.
“Everyone wants to keep African cuisine like a museum piece, frozen. The old colonialists want to protect it, and Africans think only their mothers can really pull it off. If you go to a restaurant with an African, he’ll tell you: “That was good, but you should try the stuff my mum makes!” Inversely, Europeans would say “you should try the stuff in Africa”! And they’re both completely wrong!
Worse still are the prejudices concerning the quality and those who represent African cuisine. Alexandre once told me that a satisfied African diner at the Rio Dos Camaros had asked him, without a trace of irony:
“It’s really good here. Are the bosses white?”
He also thinks the preconceptions about African food being too spicy are a poor excuse:
“We don’t just “spice everything up”. In Africa all the spices are put on the table and everyone seasons their food the way they like it, just like salt and pepper. Of course there is a “trend” for spicy food, but its hot food with bold flavours, and it’s still made to each person’s tastes. Saying African cuisine is too spicy is as stupid as saying “All Europeans put too much pepper on their food.”
However, these common preconceptions don’t entirely explain the lack of enthusiasm for this cuisine.
Let’s take Indian food, for example. There are the same prejudices about spice, but not to the point of turning people away. What’s more, the products used in African cuisine are enjoyed all over the world. According to Alexandre, “the only thing ‘African’ about it is the name”. He actually gives cooking lessons in his restaurant and at the Atelier des Sens every month, and tries to pass on the “subtlety you can find in Sub-Saharan African cuisine”.
In the Île-de-France region, despite the fact there is a Sub-Saharan African population of around 2.5% (without including the immigrant population),
the makalas, pastels and foufous are not yet given the attention they deserve…
Is this still a question of prejudice? Not entirely. Development of African cuisine has also been slowed by restaurant-owners themselves, who haven’t adapted to the new generations and more modern consumption habits.
This is how initiatives are formed, with the arrival of young entrepreneurs looking to open the doors to and “sex up” this rich, gastronomical heritage. Gabriel, Morlaye and Hassoun are part of this new generation. Born in France, they grew up around French culture. They’ve been friends for more than ten years, and have always wanted to create a project together. And they’ve just realised their dream by opening the first, high-quality African fast-food restaurant in Paris: Osè.
Inspired by restaurants in the same vein such as Chipotlé, Sushi Shop and others in this new wave of premium fast-food eateries, the three partners wanted to apply the same business model to African cuisine. They’ve westernised typical dishes and added innovation, while meeting the need for speed and ease.
“African cuisine was not originally made to be eaten quickly. Today people are lazier and more rushed. Burgers is so successful because it’s easy to eat. The same thing goes for sushi, bagels and the like”, says Gabriel.
This trend smashes records every year. In 2013 half of all sandwiches sold were burgers, compared with one in nine in 2000, according to Gira Conseil, a market analysis company specialised in the food service industry.
There are around 20,000 pizza sales outlets in France, 2,000 Japanese restaurants, and more than 10,000 Chinese restaurants. And every year the number of home deliveries explodes, generally alongside the revenue generated by fast-food.
“We realised there was loads of potential but not exploited enough, and poorly! I’m a marketing guy, so I was interested in the challenge of repositioning the cultural image in people’s minds. I wanted to apply the same methods to African cuisine that had been used on sushi 20 years ago. No one really ate it before Japanese cuisine was adapted to the European market, before Sushi Shop etc. I think the same will be said of African cuisine in 20 years! It will become completely accessible, at least I hope so!”
According to Gabriel, African have tried to introduce others to their cuisine, but perhaps have gone about it the wrong way.
“African restaurants usually sell the idea of travel and culture. We don’t care about that – we aren’t travel agents. We just sell great food.”
Morlaye admits that people have negative views about cuisine from Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s usually people who don’t know much about it, but often Africans as well.
“We carried out a huge market study before getting started, and found there are so many preconceptions. The thing that kept coming up the most was a fear of spice. Everyone things it’s too spicy! There were also prejudices about cleanness and hygiene, all the worst prejudices about Africa associated with its cuisine”, says Gabriel.
This preconceptions are even more ridiculous in light of the numerous sandwich bars, bakeries and other fast-food outlets that have been closed by the French government for not respecting hygiene standards, and in which people buy food without a second thought.
Out of the 3,564 fast food establishments reviewed in 2014 by the French government, some 2,448 anomalies were found with regard to hygiene, in terms of the products used and their traceability. And that’s without mentioning the quality of products used by McDonald’s and other leading fast-food business loved by so many.
At Osè, sensitive palates have been catered for, as different spices are offered. Customers can then season their dishes as they see fit, or not at all. The restaurant also plays on words, as Osé means “daring” in French, and “Osè” means spice in Igbo (the language spoken in Nigeria).
The name therefore means both Daring and Spice. Clever.
Are there other African initiatives in Paris?
Gabriel tells us about Black Spoon, the first African food-truck, which is also looking to “introduce as many people as possible to African gastronomy, with a cool, original concept that shirks the usual clichés.”
Afrik’n’fusion is a hybrid restaurant positioned between modern fast-food and table service, also created by three childhood friends and the first project of its kind.
I personally wanted to go to Seine-Saint-Denis to see another side of African cuisine. The département just outside of Paris welcomes between two and three more foreigners than all others départements, and almost as many as Paris itself. It is also the place home to the most people from Sub-Saharan Africa in the Île-de-France region.
I contacted Estelle Jean Monoko, boss and chef of the eponymous African restaurant in Saint-Denis. When I asked her if there were many African establishments here that represented Sub-Saharan Africa, she replied that you had to disassociate two concepts:
“On the one hand”, she says, “there are the well-known but infamous African bars”:
“People go there to party. The music is really loud, and there’s mostly alcohol. There is a little food but no service.”
But these African bars are hard to spot for those who don’t know them. They can often be improvised, and are not very well-off as they are usually set up in people’s homes. People also go there to meet up with friends, chat and meet others. There are quite a few in Saint-Denis and even in Paris, compared with traditional restaurants. But they can’t really be taken into account if we want to consider the place of Sub-Saharan African restaurants in France. And they can’t actually be counted, as they work in networks, by reputation, and are never listed or registered as businesses, even though they are selling something.
Estelle is proud to own a “real restaurant” that welcomes customers from every country and walk of life. She has also understood that attracting other nationalities means removing their fear of spices, and so has separated them from the dishes. After all, this is a fairly normal practice.
“African cuisine is not in fact so different from French cuisine”, she says. “You have to know about French cuisine first if you want to get involved in African cuisine.”
Watch this space… Let’s just hope that the prejudices will dissipate and the sun will shine on Sub-Saharan African cuisine.