For Ishmael Osekre, the founder of this weekend’s inaugural New York African Food Festival, the project was an experiment gone viral. ”Originally I wanted to do a small proof of concept in Dumbo for about 500 people” says, Osekre, who heads Afropolitan Insights. Ten days after its launch, the event site had 1 million views and 12,000 people interested in the Facebook event, all with ticket sales to match before there was even any sort of lineup for the festival. From there, Osekre moved quickly, moving it to larger quarters, recruiting chefs, bringing in experience architects, and curating a thrilling assortment of artists and vendors for New York City’s first immersive taste of Africa.
“African music and fashion have always had steady momentum and exposure in mainstream American culture; African food hasn’t” explains Osekre. So for two days Osekre plans to transform the Brooklyn Navy Yard into a celebration of African culture from all corners of the diaspora. Along with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, shisha lounge, hair wrap demos, a queen’s lounge stocked with African designs, a photo booth designed by Beyoncé-approved artist Laolu Sebanjo, and live music, there will, of course, be food.
“Truly, African food is consistently an exciting treat of tastes,” says Osekre, who hopes the festival will, in its own way, influence some of the narrative around Africa through culinary history and tradition. Festival goers should keep an eye out for puff-puffs (deep-fried Nigerian donuts), jollof (a popular West African one-pot rice dish cooked in a tomato sauce), hibiscus and ginger juices, suya (spicy kebabs), shito (a beloved black pepper sauce that originated in Ghana), injera (an East African sourdough flatbread that often acts as a plate for salad or meat piled on top of it that fans of Ethiopian cuisine will recognize), and many vegan and vegetarian options.
Along with tastings, demonstrations, and mini-cooking lessons, there are VIP tickets that offer access to even more food and time with celebrated African chefs. On Saturday, Nigerian-born chef Grace Odogbili will prepare a vegan brunch with bottomless African superfood smoothies ($90) and a five-course, pan-African dinner ($150) that includes Egyptian stuffed vine leaves with roasted garlic puree, curry goat ravioli, steamed bean cakes, and Egyptian honey wine and beer.
In other words, the inimitable spices, aromas, and styles of African cuisine will be at your fingertips and on your lips, this weekend. “When all is said and done, we want folks to come and have good food, a great experience, and a lot of good laughs” says Osekre. “Just the way we live back home.”