The heady steam of Jollof rice fogged up Shola Olunloyo’s stylish black glasses. And as he took his first bites of the dish at African Small Pot restaurant on Woodland Avenue, the Nigerian-born chef nodded with approval at its assertively spiced tomato sauce lit with habaneros. He praised its meat treasures of cow skin, tripe, and beef.

“The stew is solid, the textures of the meats are super good. This is like home cooking, which is usually the best cooking in West Africa,” he said, barely able to restrain his delight at the Diop family’s restaurant.

“I am blown away by everything that’s going on in this neighborhood,” said Olunloyo about Woodland Avenue, the commercial heart of the immigrant African community in Southwest Philadelphia, where imported food markets and fabric stores bustle with customers and fragrant smoke billows from restaurant grills sizzling with lamb and goat dibi.

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We’d come here as part of a multi-restaurant quest to find great Jollof rice. The iconic West African dish is having a moment both locally and in the national consciousness, with two new fast-casual restaurants built around Jollof bowls, a controversial new convenience version at Trader Joe’s, and more references in pop culture than ever before.

Philadelphia has a long-established community of immigrants from the 16 sub-Saharan countries of West Africa that is growing, with nearly 40,000 people identifying as being of West African heritage in 2019, up almost 10,000 from a decade ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Another 40,000 live in the surrounding suburban counties. So I was surprised when Olunloyo confessed that he’d never been to Woodland’s commercial corridor before, despite the fact that he’s been living in Philadelphia on and off since the 1980s. His shopping for key ingredients — smoked fish, palm oil, egusi seeds, or locust beans — had always been satisfied by a market near 52nd Street, more convenient to his home in South Philadelphia.

“The fact I haven’t been here in all these years is complete malpractice — as a cook and as an African,” he conceded with a wry smile.

Olunloyo’s self-deprecating humor, though, is a tell. He’s crafted a reputation as one of Philadelphia’s most innovative and influential chefs over the last two decades — despite having his only attempt at running his own restaurant, the much anticipated Speck, fall apart in 2011 due to a contract dispute before it ever officially opened. Trained in classic French gastronomy at restaurants like Deux Cheminées and Le Bec-Fin, he’s since become a modernist guru with a national reputation through his StudioKitchen blog, Instagram page, consulting and coveted pop-up dinners. But until the pandemic, he’d never cooked Nigerian food for the public before.

“I never thought anyone was interested, but it was always in my head and heart,” he said.

The public is interested now, especially after Olunloyo’s star turn in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., as the first talent featured in the Chef in Residence at Stone Barns program, a series of limited engagements that began in January 2020 at the former Rockefeller estate turned nonprofit center for sustainable food, agriculture, and ecological cuisine.

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Just two weeks after our September meal at African Small Pot, Olunloyo was back at Stone Barns Center before an adoring crowd for another two nights in partnership with the Michelin-starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns, presenting a $125 contemporary tasting menu of reimagined African flavors.

Sustainably raised beef came grilled on skewers as suya, a favorite street food marinated in peanut powder then dusted with a yaji spice blend scented with grains of paradise. Heritage breed local pork was transformed into a sublime egusi stew thickened with heirloom black pumpkin seeds. Modern touches reflecting Olunloyo’s research into crafting amino-based flavor enhancers from African ingredients, such as misos and shio kojis from black-eyed peas and iru (fermented locust beans), delivered flavor depth-charges across the menu. And Jollof rice? Olunloyo stuffed it along with ground pork into sausage links like a Cajun boudin, lavished with stewed peppers beside a creamy coconut-parsnip puree.

With support from Blue Hill’s star chef Dan Barber and his staff, peerless ingredients from Stone Barns Center’s fields, and ready access to New York media, it was a prime national showcase for both Olunloyo and African flavors. And such representation on that kind of prestigious stage is crucial, said British chef and author Zoe Adjonyoh, whose cookbook Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, was just published in America.

“When Shola [comes up with] dawadawa miso, that’s definitely new,” said Adjonyoh, who’s been impressed with Olunloyo’s ability to capture the spirit of traditional African ingredients while transforming them with science and global culinary techniques.

In her own piece on Olunloyo for Today.com, she cited the significance of his first engagement at Stone Barns Center as a “seminal” event: “Without knowing it, Shola has become the godfather of New African Cuisine.”


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An African revolution

Timing, of course, is everything. And Adjonyoh believes American culture is ripe for its African food revolution after attention surrounding the Year of Return to Ghana in 2019, which drew the likes of Beyoncé to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to America. The social justice reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd has been instrumental in inspiring institutions like the Stone Barns Center, built on a former Rockefeller estate, to deliberately showcase chefs of color and non-European cuisines.

Jessica B. Harris’ book High on the Hog was turned into the high-profile Netflix series. Ghanaian American Top Chef contestant Eric Adjepong recently showcased his trip to Ghana in an episode of Hulu’s Your Attention Please. And this year’s Emmy-winning comedy hit, Apple TV’s Ted Lasso, featured a Nigerian soccer star, his Jollof rice, and his dreams of opening a Nigerian restaurant as major story line.

“Why is African culture in vogue right now? It’s just about time,” said Ruth Nakaar. The 30-year-old Ghanaian American studied entrepreneurship at the Wharton School and is preparing a winter 2022 opening near Rittenhouse Square for Fudena, a fast casual concept offering three kinds of rice bowls (gingery Jollof, coconut or waakye with black-eyed peas), proteins such as chicken, shrimp, or curried goat (“one of the most popular choices”) and tomato stew with customizable spice.

“I’m Fudena’s target customer — a first-generation immigrant [for whom] living in two worlds is second nature,” she said. “America is learning that Black people are not a monolith, so I’m welcoming the new awareness that this opens to what diaspora food is, and what West African food is.”

A similar project is already happening across town in Northern Liberties at Suya Suya West African Grill (400 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia, 267-704-9033; suyasuya.co) where mix-and-match rice bowls are paired with grilled skewers called suya (beef, chicken, or Brussels sprouts for a veggie option) are dusted with yaji spice imported from Abuja, Nigeria, where owner Dera Nd-Ezuma’s father supplies it to local street vendors.

“This is something I’ve had in my mind since 2015,” said Nd-Ezuma, who came to America on a basketball scholarship in 2007, and playing eventually at Rider University before settling into an accounting career. He thought, at first, about opening in West Philadelphia closer to the African community. “But then it occurred to me: We have such a great cuisine, why not branch out to other neighborhoods that haven’t experienced West African cuisine and let the rest of Philadelphia try what [we have] to offer?”

Despite the broader target audience, adjustable spice levels and Chipotle-esque setup, there’s little compromise to the core flavors at Suya Suya, which was the first stop on our nine-restaurant Jollof crawl. Olunloyo had notes for the beef suya, which lacked enough seasoning and could have been more delicately grilled. But Nd-Ezuma’s Jollof was one of his favorites, its fluffy parboiled rice (“not sticky!”) noticeably red with tomato, the taste of onion and a balanced spice: “This is my flavor memory of what the dish was like growing up. ... If you look at how immigrant food has moved to America, places like this are the stepping-stone to what’s going to happen next.”


Diversity within the diaspora

Our subsequent trips to more community-centered restaurants in Southwest Philadelphia and Delaware County, however, revealed just how diverse interpretations of Jollof rice can be depending on the country of origin.

The Diop family that runs 10-year-old African Small Pot (6505 Woodland Ave., Philadelphia, 267-713-7603; africansmallpot.com) comes from Mauritania, which neighbors Senegal and the Wolof people from whom the dish originated. And Olunloyo was pleased with the tripe and beef rendition served to us with ginger juice and sweet hot tea by the gregarious Abdarahmane Diop and his son, chef-owner Bokar Diop. But it was the Thiéboudienne, a lighter-colored rendition that’s the national dish of Senegal made with broken jasmine rice and fish that stole the show. Bokar’s fried whole snapper was so stellar alongside the rice with a stew of tart sorrel leaves, I’m not surprised to learn his cooking has earned a broad following beyond the immigrant community, from Black Americans like former Eagles star Malcolm Jenkins, who loved that snapper, to officers at the 12th District police station down the street, who favor his grilled dibi lamb chops.

Across the street at Le Mandingue (6620 Woodland Ave., Philadelphia, 215-726-0543; 7186 Marshall Rd., Upper Darby, 484-461-2981; lemandinguephilly.com), we found a bustling takeout scene waiting for a wide range of specialties, from sweet potato greens cooked with smoked turkey to lamb in peanut butter soup and the signature dibi grilled meats, which Liberian chef-owner Fanta Fofana said are deliberately cut into bony little chunks, “because the bones slow you down and make you take your take time while you’re talking and drinking tea.”

Fofana and her husband, Mohamed Kada, arrived as refugees in 1995 and launched Le Mandingue a decade later, followed by an Upper Darby branch two years ago. And her brown-toned Liberian-style Jollof, more stir-fried than tomato-stewed and seasoned with sumbala (fermented locust beans), is what Olunloyo called “definitely up the African coast” from his redder Nigerian ideal: “But what it lacks in tomato, it does not sacrifice in flavor,” he said, licking his fingers between bites of lamb and rice. ”Super tasty.”

We found more good Liberian cooking at Emma’s Liberian Kitchen (7201 Woodland Ave., Philadelphia, 267-292-2959; 901 MacDade Blvd., Collingdale, 484-497-5191; emmasliberiankitchen2.com), an 11-old Woodland Avenue restaurant launched by another refugee from the Liberian conflict, Emma Dalieh, who also opened a suburban branch in Collingdale shortly before the pandemic. At that Delco satellite, Olunloyo loved the spice-forward punch of Dalieh’s jollof, but it was her goat stew that captured his attention: “It has a good, flavorful broth and this is my correct texture for stewed meat — any softer is mush, but this has the right amount of chew.”

Across the street from Emma’s, however, we found a genuine taste of Nigeria at the new location for WaZoBia (942 MacDade Blvd., Collingdale, 215-769-3800; Facebook), where simply the aroma of owner Risikat Jamiu’s Jollof rice — tomatoey, boldly spiced, and resonant of Maggi bouillon cubes — whisked Olunloyo home: “Mom’s cooking,” he nodded.

Add in a soulful egusi stew scooped up with fluffy pinches of fufu and precooked packages of spicy moi moi black-eyed pea cakes to go, and I was reminded why Jamiu, who arrived to Philadelphia in the mid-1980s and attended the Restaurant School, was such a reliable standby at 11th and Mount Vernon for 17 years before gentrification forced her to move to the suburbs in 2019. Her location was not, in fact, that far from where Suya Suya is now making a more polished attempt at presenting West African flavors to a broader audience in Northern Liberties. But timing, of course, is everything.


A taste of home

The final stop on our Jollof tour was Olunloyo’s home, where he was preparing his ultimate homestyle Jollof as part of a Nigerian feast of chicken egusi, grilled beef suya, veal breast stew and ... a pack of Trader Joe’s instant Jollof. For comparison’s sake.

Of course, it didn’t compare. The “spicy Jollof seasoned rice mix” introduced by TJ’s this fall sparked immediate criticism from observers like Zoe Adjonyoh, who raised concerns over misrepresentation and cultural appropriation: “Literally and figuratively a pale version of Jollof rice.”

Its bland, one-dimensional flavor didn’t stand a chance beside Olunloyo’s, whose rice was mixed with a tomato stew blended from hot peppers and fresh thyme from his garden, perfect chicken stock, fragrant curry and then roasted inside a backyard charcoal-fired hearth with smoldering fig branches that lent a smokiness and crispy bottom that made it a “party Jollof.”

There were other secret touches, too: the additions fermented chicken garum and tomato shoyu, two experimental amino compounds Olunloyo uses “to weaponize Jollof” and essentially render it irresistibly, indescribably profound to eat.

Which led me to wonder out loud: Shouldn’t this updated traditional masterpiece, as well as his more creative contemporary creations, be available to rest of the world in a restaurant? After all, his appearances at the Stone Barns Center seemed to mark a triumphant comeback for Olunloyo, who’d been out of the restaurant spotlight for a decade, working primarily as a private chef and consultant.

His influence, in fact, had never really abated on culinary peers like Marc Vetri, who went to Drexel with Olunloyo and hosts him for collaboration dinners multiple times a year. (Another collaboration at River Twice is set for Dec. 23).

“A lot of the evolution of [Vetri Cucina] has been because of my relationships, and my relationship with Shola is one of the most profound,” said Vetri.

But Vetri has also noticed a special spark in Olunloyo since his friend has turned publicly to Nigerian cooking — one that reminds him of the transformation he saw when his onetime protégé, Michael Solomonov, reconnected with his Israeli roots: “That’s when you know it’s real.”

Olunloyo won’t deny the passion has been lit: “I agree someone should do this in a restaurant — just not me.”

The sting of his experience at Speck, which devastated him financially, permanently soured him on the industry: “I will never open another restaurant,” he vows, although not ruling out a consulting role.

It’s not the kind of sentiment a restaurant-centric person like myself could always previously relate to. But Olunloyo has made a case for his ability to influence the wider culinary dialogue as an independent voice who, either as an early pop-up master, modernist wizard, or proto-food blogger, has always been ahead of his time.

“You don’t need a restaurant to do the kind of creative exploration that I do because it may be contrary to that exploration,” he said. “Hey, let’s just be happy and continue playing with food.”