NEW YORK - Lookman Afolayan Mashood immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in 1996, first working at a Brooklyn restaurant as a dishwasher, cook and manager. About five years ago, he and his girlfriend, Australian architect Natalie Goldberg, opened their own restaurant in Brooklyn — Buka New York — featuring Nigerian food.
Mashood said it’s now the most popular African restaurant in New York, which is debatable — there are at least 50, including many specializing in Senegalese and Ethiopian food. But Buka may well be the most popular Nigerian restaurant.
Mashood spoke to VOA recently and showed off his cooking skills in the kitchen, stirring a pot of Egusi soup made with ground squash seeds, goat meat and dried fish, among other ingredients.
“There’s no food compared to Nigerian food. It’s not the same as Ghana, or Ethiopian," he said. "Anybody can cook goat; anybody can cook beef; but when a Nigerian man cooks beef for you, you will see the difference. We always bring the flavor out of anything we cook, whether it’s fish, whether it’s beef, whether it’s chicken. Whatever we cook, it’s very distinctive — that, colonialism has not been able to change! So, I’m very proud to say I present Nigerian food as it should be, in New York."
Buka an 'ironic' name
Mashood said the makeup of his clientele is about "45 percent Nigerians and 55 percent everybody else. I am surviving in business because of the support of whites or Americans who are not afraid to start something new. When you come here on Saturday night, you will not even imagine this is a Nigerian restaurant. Like, a Nigerian will come here sometimes and it’s too white, and they’re like, ‘I want to go to a Nigerian restaurant,’ and I’m like, ‘This is a Nigerian restaurant.’ "
He called Buka an "ironic" name. "It’s a Hausa word, and it means on the side of the road, or local joint, where you can take friends, where everybody knows you can get good food. If anybody comes to New York [from Nigeria], and they want to know anything about Nigeria, they come to Buka. You can meet ordinary people; you want to talk about the crisis, whatever, the good, the bad, whatever is going on in Nigeria. The press comes to Buka. You miss your friend you haven't seen in the last 10, 20, years, you come to Buka and ask us — we tell you where you might find him."
Key to business: heart
"Nobody gives you money to start a restaurant," Mashood said. "There’s no angel fund for restaurants, so you have to struggle extra hard. You will never have enough money. So if you want to have a restaurant, you need a heart — I think heart is the most important thing, the conviction [that] 'I’m going to have a restaurant.' "
"You cannot stop immigration," he added. "The best of America is immigration, because it is only the bright mind[s], in all the corners of the globe, that want to come to USA. It’s only the people that want to advance — those are the people who apply for visas, who want to come here. So I believe the U.S., if she ever needs more people — Detroit needs people — my people can come. The U.S. needs workers that will start at the low wage and naturally advance themselves. Please invite my people. And give them six months. If they don’t make something of themselves in six months, send them back!"
"The dream is still very available," Mashood said. "It’s still alive, and especially for Nigerians, because if you work very hard, if you want to come to America and work very hard, you will survive. You will gain the reward of what you’ve done.”