Senegalese-born chef Serigne Mbaye knows the U.S. holiday Juneteenth honors the day when the last African American slaves were freed in 1865.
“But,” he said, “to me, the most important thing about Juneteenth is community.”
So Mbaye’s New Orleans restaurant Dakar NOLA organized the Afro Freedom/Afro Feast community celebration featuring food by more than a half-dozen of New Orleans’ most prominent Black chefs, music by a West African DJ and by premier African American jazz musicians and drinks from a local nonprofit that connects rising Black and other non-white hospitality workers to job opportunities.
“To have all of these Black and brown brothers and sisters celebrating our freedom and sharing their talents with this city — it’s very special,” Mbaye told VOA. “But it’s also a way to have a conversation that needs to be had. It’s a difficult conversation, but doing it over food, drink and music helps make people more open.”
Story through food
Mbaye was an emerging finalist for this year’s James Beard Awards honoring the top U.S. chefs, restaurateurs and food writers. He is using that notoriety to address issues of concern in the New Orleans food industry. Among the discussions at this year’s Juneteenth event was how, in a city renowned for its food, African contributions to that cuisine are too often overlooked.
“French food is held up as the sole standard, but I don’t really get that,” said Martha Wiggins, executive chef at Café Reconcile, a nonprofit restaurant in New Orleans providing food industry job training to at-risk youth.
“African influence can be found throughout New Orleans’ food and throughout America’s food,” she told VOA, “and I think this country should give more credit to — and take more time to celebrate — this excellent, masterful and ingenious cuisine.”
At Dakar NOLA, Mbaye helps guests make that connection by highlighting the West African influence on many of New Orleans’ signature dishes.
“Gumbo is so important to New Orleans, but you’ll find that same characteristic okra and seafood stew over rice in African soupou kandja,” he explained. “And it doesn’t end there. Louisiana’s tomato-based etouffee and doughy beignets also have origins in Africa. But those stories are often forgotten here.”
When Haitian chef Charly Pierre moved to New Orleans, he worked at several high-profile restaurants before opening his own Haitian restaurant, something he was surprised to find lacking in the city.
“After the Haitian revolution in the early 19th century, Haitian refugees doubled New Orleans’ population,” Pierre told VOA. “The effect was huge. So why isn’t Haitian culture celebrated the same way French, Spanish and Italian contributions to this city are?”
Celebration, but work to do
While the chefs at the Juneteenth event agreed African American influence on the city’s culture should be more widely learned and celebrated, Pierre believes those traditions are even more notable given the circumstances through which they have endured.
“Red beans and rice, root vegetables, chitlins, gumbo and so many other dishes survived hundreds of years of our people being enslaved,” he said. “That these dishes were able to survive from our forefathers centuries ago in Africa, and that they remain close to our hearts today after everything we’ve been through, it’s really amazing.
“And it’s a testament to how good this food is,” Pierre continued. “It’s like natural selection. How did it survive all this? Well, when you have your first bite of red beans, you get it. Of course, this food survived. It’s that good.”
More than 100 Afro Freedom/Afro Feast guests gathered at an urban farm just outside downtown New Orleans, dancing to music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and loading up their plates with meats and vegetables cooked over an open flame by some of New Orleans’ brightest culinary stars.
It was a spirited Juneteenth celebration that participating chefs see as more of a beginning than an end.
“When I first heard last year that Juneteenth was becoming a national holiday, I was kind of cynical and rolled my eyes,” Wiggins of Café Reconcile said. “Is this just going to be some performative way for Americans to say they support Black and brown people without really doing anything?
“But after the event, I don’t feel so cynical,” she admitted. “It’s a celebration of community. I brought some of the students I’m mentoring from Café Reconcile, and for them to see all of these Black chefs being elevated, and to see this traditional food being celebrated, I think it’s important for the next generation to understand how they fit in.”
Mbaye hopes to see continued attention for Black chefs and African-influenced dishes in New Orleans.
“There are so many extraordinary Black chefs in this city and their work should be acknowledged and their food should be tried,” Mbaye said. “I think we were able to do some of that this week, but this isn’t only for Juneteenth. Africa’s influence on American culture is something we should be talking about every single day.”