The Magical Yewande Komolafe

Yewande Komolafe "tending" to some tiny greens

I get asked to cook at many events, but when my friend Navina Khanna asked me to cook for a HEAL fundraiser at the James Beard House a couple of months ago, I said “of course.” Then I dodged. That sentence needs a lot of unpacking, obviously, but the dinner was this past Monday, and I’m happy to say it was a success. The unpacking:

HEAL stands for Health, Education, Agriculture, Labor; and it’s officially called the HEAL Food Alliance. It was founded by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Real Food Challenge, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, and now comprises 50 or so organizations. You can read the HEAL platform here (and you can donate to HEAL here). It is, simply put, the best food-oriented organization I know when it comes to understanding and working on re-creating our food system. That’s in large part because it’s an alliance of like-minded and universally awesome groups. (Navina is the director.)

The James Beard House, best known for its annual awards ceremonies, is in the process of doing more serious work on the food system than it ever has. As Mitchell Davis, who’s the JBH’s chief strategy officer, said to me, “This event was part of our newly evolved mission, which we condensed into ‘Good Food for Good.’” That mission is nicely described in this blog post by Mitchell. Kudos.

The “dodge” is that I don’t really cook for forty people without either deferring or getting a load of help. (No one does, really, but I don’t even pretend to know what I’m doing in those situations; I’m not a chef, in that sense.) But this seemed like a good opportunity not only to get some attention for a friend/chef who deserves it, but to introduce a good crowd to some food that they might not otherwise have tried. The friend/chef is Yewande Komolafe, who’s from Nigeria and runs a regular dinner series called "My Immigrant Food Is….” (She's also cooking here, at Glynwood, on November 15th, and some seats are still available.)

Yewande is an awesome cook and, with help from her friends, Beard House staff, my buddy Shawn Hubbell (he of the apple crisp), and a tiny bit from me, she knocked it out of the park. There were many highlights: spiced roasted vegetables (just their aroma drove me wild as soon as they got near me; check out the recipe below) and Yewande’s “I don’t measure when I make it” red sauce, which was used to braise and accent goat and also as a finishing touch on a couple of other dishes. (She makes it by sautéing together tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and habaneros, then, when it tastes good, pureeing). Also: collard greens wilted without heat but almost cooked, in a palm oil vinaigrette; striped bass in pepper soup; roasted pineapple on tapioca with ginger-coconut sauce…the menu went on, and everything was delicious. A really nice night.

— Mark

Suya spice is generally used as a dry seasoning mix for skewered meats (it is a blend of ground ginger, chili powder and roasted peanut powder, and can be found in African markets or grocery stores, and online, of course). Beef or chicken is generously seasoned with the spice blend and charred over an open flame - a classic Nigerian street food. On hot nights, you can drive through Lagos and spot crowds around a hot grill, a grill master picking skewers off and trading them for cash. Yewande uses the seasoning mix on roasted vegetables; mixed into a quick relish of ginger, scallions and limes; and spooned over everything.


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Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.