NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Moorish kebabs. Senegalese empanadas. Nigerian skewers.
Chef Diana Tandia, a native of Mauritania, is bringing flavors of her childhood to the Afrofusion menu at Berber Street Food, a 15-seat fast-casual restaurant she owns with her husband Michael Matan.
“Berber [people] cover the whole of North Africa and some part of the West, especially Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, which is the Western Sahara, and a little bit of Mali and Niger,” she said.
She was raised in Berber, Fulani, and Senegalese cultures, a background that informs her culinary approach.
“I wanted to go back to my roots because I feel like African food is so flavorful, but unfortunately, a lot of people are not exposed to that,” she said.
She saw an opportunity to introduce the offerings of her home country to New York City.
“Not a lot of people know about Mauritania,” she said. “I said, ‘How about if I’m going to be the first woman chef representing my country?'”
When she immigrated to the United States, she spoke only French.
“It was hard for me to find a job,” she said. “I was a hostess/waitress then started chopping onions.”
Despite these barriers, she was undeterred.
“I think sometimes obstacles can be a blessing,” she said. “I fell in love with food. I decided to go to culinary school, and after I finished culinary school, I worked my way up [to] Jean-Georges. I did Per Se. I did Daniel.”
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Her experience in fine dining ultimately prepared her to open Berber Street Food.
Memories of Mauritania infuse her menu.
“Being home when we were young… we’d run around the street, and we’d see ladies, some of them making empanadas, some of them making accara (black-eyed pea fritters), some of them making skewers. You’d buy them, and you’d eat, and you’d run around and play with your friends.”
Tandia also draws inspiration from international travel. Experiences abroad convinced her that the best authentic food in any country is what’s sold in the street.
At Berber Street Food, she experiments with flavors and techniques from across the globe.
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“We have an Afrofusion bowl we serve here, which is a universal bowl,” she said.
It incorporates Caribbean jerk chicken, which she marinates for 48 hours.
“What I wanted to do is trace the history of Africa. When the slaves left, they took them all over the corners of the world, from America to the Caribbean and to South America, especially in Brazil. I said, ‘How about if I bring all this in one bowl?'”
“There’s a lot of challenge in coming in every morning in that tiny place because it’s such a small kitchen,” she said. “Coming here, being an immigrant, wanting to make a better life for me, really keeps me going every morning.”
She works alongside sous-chef Guillermina Solis, another female immigrant, originally from Mexico.
“Being in the kitchen, I was always led by men, and I think it’s about time for us to show we are talented,” Tandia said.
She refuses to take shortcuts in executing her ambitious menu. That means items sell out or aren’t always available.
“It was a little scary doing this [broad] menu in that tiny kitchen,” she said. “It’s just [about] taking a risk sometimes in life.”
Her customers make the risk worthwhile, she says.
“There’s nothing that makes me happier [than] when I see somebody eating my food and leaving with a smile. My day is made,” Tandia said.
Berber Street Food
35 Carmine Street
New York, NY 10014
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