Q. Why is that? It’s the cradle of civilization, right?
A. I think it has to do with the fact that we learn about food by going as tourists, by buying something from a given country; there have to be several steps before people start cooking it at their houses. Even Japanese food, we didn’t learn about Japanese food until we started buying their cars, trading with them on several levels, touring in their countries. So it’s not necessarily racism per se.
Q. I have to disagree with you, though. I think there is real racism in cooking, and the place you see it most is in the difference between the ways Americans look at Japanese food and Chinese food. It’s not so much racism as classism. Japanese is high-end expensive; Chinese is supposed to be cheap. I think you are going to see that in 10 years, the American perception of Chinese food will change dramatically because suddenly China is a wealthy country.
A. You’re probably right. There is a lot of African food in America already, but it’s always immigrant to immigrant. You can go to Sengalese restaurants [in New York] that are fabulous, but they’re not necessarily where you and I are going to entertain. You need [a restaurant] to hit it out of the park and make it okay for the non-foodie. That’s what Nobu really did for Japanese food and Tabla did for Indian food.
Q. They took two cuisines that people were very comfortable with, and they made them their own. They took it and said, “You know sushi, but I’m going to give you sushi like you’ve never seen before.” You have a much bigger burden here, because you have to introduce the cuisine to people.
A. But it’s yummy.
Q. It is yummy. Of all the things you’re going to serve here, what do you think are the things Americans are going to be the most excited about?
A. Well, you have some of them right in front of you. You’ve got to try the peanut soup.
Q. This is peanut soup? It doesn’t look like any peanut soup I’ve ever seen before.
A. No, no. But a friend of mine’s mother cooked me peanut soup from Ghana, and I thought, well, we can’t serve just heavy food—so how about making it with the most elegant, almost simplistic, clear chicken broth, and have some peanuts in there? So sometimes I’m not cooking traditional at all.
Q. This sure isn’t. Because every ground-nut soup I’ve ever had was heavy.
A. Sometimes I don’t give a damn about the tradition. You don’t have to know a ground-nut soup from Ghana to like that chicken soup.
Q. How did you find people who could cook this food?
A. We didn’t. [Executive chef] Andrea [Luz Bergquist] and I worked together for six months, and I took guys that I worked with for a long time. One of the guys, Paul, he’s from the Caribbean, so he grew up with a little bit of this food. Andrea’s from Colombia, but she worked at Tabla. This is a challenge. You know at Aquavit, I have eight Swedish guys and three Americans, and everything is fine. This is a little bit different.
Q. Because there is no restaurant tradition in Africa, right?
A. Not on this level. It’s not a Moroccan guy doing South African food; it’s not a Nigerian restaurant doing Egyptian food. It’s very much the Nigerian guy doing the Nigerian local thing. This is the challenge. We have a great kitchen now, but I can’t say that it’s easy.
Q. Do you have any African cooks in your kitchen?
A. Some, but I don’t think it would have helped [to have more] because there’s no reference point for this food. You have to be a good cook, and you have to build a sense of food memory. So I tell them, “Okay, close your eyes.” And we season it and we taste it, and I said, “Do you remember now? It’s not spicy. It’s flavorful. Do you understand the difference?” So it’s hard. But you know, we’ve had it before. I’ve had Americans learn how to do pickled herring.
And at first the staff was learning about Aquavit and my sensibility: We take something very traditional and go as far away from that tradition as possible, and then come back to something fabulous. Here, this doro is very traditional—it’s the Ethiopian chicken dish that you have to have. To do that and do [the peanut soup], it’s a completely different mindset.