Next Wave, West African

The term “ubuntu” refers to a philosophy shared by many African tribes, translating loosely to “I am because we are.” It’s a value system that celebrates the interconnectedness of human beings.

Chef Shenarri Freeman

The term “ubuntu” refers to a philosophy shared by many African tribes, translating loosely to “I am because we are.” It’s a value system that celebrates the interconnectedness of human beings. On a quiet Sunday night in the Fairfax District, the vintage shops lining Melrose Avenue were already closed for the evening, but inside the dining room and garden patio of Ubuntu, Chef Shenarri Freeman’s plant-based West African restaurant which opened last August, the mood was lively. 

Ubuntu is Virginia-raised Freeman’s second venture, quickly following the success of her vegan soul food debut, Cadence, which she opened in 2021 with Overthrow Hospitality, in New York’s East Village. Accolades followed, including a  a James Beard Award semifinalist for Emerging Chef in 2022 and Best New York Chef in 2023, as well as a spot on Forbes 30 Under 30. 

Freeman began working in the hospitality industry while studying at Howard University, but the late nights and dietary trade-offs took a toll on her well-being. Putting her health first, Freeman turned to veganism. Her interest in plant-based cooking led her to the Institution of Culinary Education’s program in Health Supportive Culinary Arts, where she studied principles of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. A holistic researcher, Freeman’s approach to plant-based eating is “not about taking shortcuts or cooking processed foods or fake meats,” she says, but cooking with real vegetables and whole ingredients. The dietary switch that inspired Cadence is now the driving force behind Ubuntu, which takes the same mindful approach towards dishes from countries like Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana. For a chef who based a propulsive career start on redefining Southern staples for a vegan palate, the next step forward was looking inward and looking back. 

“It's very second nature to me to be cooking the food coming out of Cadence," Freeman says. "A lot of that food is inspired by family recipes, things I grew up eating, or just flavors of the South. As I continued to study and have an interest in food, I started to think, ‘Okay, where did some of these recipes and ingredients originate?’"

Many Southern staples share a direct lineage with the foods of West Africa because the slave trade brought stolen Africans to the Caribbean and U.S. South. Collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, okra, all these crossed the Atlantic and determined the course of Southern cuisine. 

Freeman’s research included two trips to West Africa to “eat and explore and immerse myself in these different cultures," she says. "To really understand what was happening by foot, literally." Her college roommate, who was born and raised in Nigeria, had been inviting her for years. Finally in the country, Freeman says, it hit her, “Oh, the answers were here this whole time.” 

Back in New York, she volunteered for chef friends from countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal at their pop-ups. She visited Chef Serigne Mbaye at Dakar NOLA to learn about Senegalese spices. “I’d be like, ‘I’m here. I got hands. You don't even have to pay me. I just want to learn,’” Freeman says. 

In traveling to West Africa and preparing for Ubuntu, her mindset shifted. “I’m just way more intentional,” she says. “Whereas before, it's like, ‘Oh, let's just throw these ingredients together and make something delicious.’” Now she asks herself, “‘But why am I using this ingredient? And is this in season or what is the history or the story of this ingredient?’ Because I want to make sure that if someone is asking me about any dish on that menu, both menus, I want to confidently be able to explain it. I'm doing very deep research on all these things before it goes on the menu.” 

Back on Melrose, there's no explanation of the term ubuntu on the restaurant’s menus but, when I dined there, cozied up at the wraparound bar, I quickly made friends with a fellow solo diner and ended up sharing a few dishes. Another member at the bar had met Freeman on a trip to Ghana and became fast friends. Ubuntu was flowing. 

I took my bartender’s suggestion and ordered maafe, a peanut and vegetable stew (often referred to as a “groundnut soup”) originating from the Mandinka and Bambara people in Mali, and Jollof Arancini. The maafe, nutty and curry-like, was thick and nourishing, and the Red Red Stew that arrived, steaming on a nest of white rice for another diner, smelled just as good. A dessert of dawadawa semifreddo (dawadawa is made from fermented locust bean) with vegan butter pecan ice cream created one of those “I can’t believe it’s not dairy!” moments. The earthy dawadawa got my baker brain churning with ideas. 

Freeman sees West African cuisine, which can be as varied as the over two-hundred fifty tribes in Nigeria alone, as “the next wave of excitement for the U.S. dining experience.” Take jollof, for example, a chili and tomato-based rice dish that appears on the Ubuntu menu as Jollof Arancini. A beloved staple of West African cuisine, its regional variations are fiercely defended, and a jollof recipe can be akin to a family insignia (I can’t help but think of jollof as jambalaya’s great-great-grand grandmother). Ozoz Sokoh writes in Food and Wine of a Nigerian saying: “A party without jollof is just a meeting.” Converting it to an arancini appetizer is one way to say, welcome to the party.

When I asked Freeman what makes her happy about cooking, she was quick to answer, “So many things.” People coming in to celebrate big occasions is one of them. “I think we're adding to people's memories and celebrations. And you know when people think about these milestones in their life, they're going to think about my food…You know, it's funny. I got a ticket the other day, and I was just thinking, ‘Wow, someone's job is to literally ruin someone else's every single day, and you're doing it to multiple people,’” she says, laughing. “And then I thought about my job. I’m making people happy.”


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