Chef Aboubacar Kouyaté was prohibited from entering the kitchen at his childhood home in the West African country of Guinea. His father believed cooking was a frivolous distraction to his education. But Kouyaté couldn’t help himself.
Enticed by the spicy aromas of saffron and turmeric that rose from his grandmother’s potato and leek soup, Kouyaté risked punishment for a glimpse of Fatoumata’s technique.
He often found himself watching her cook from the wooden doorway that led to their backyard. When she heard a rustling near the door, she turned and held a large mixing bowl to the side of her waist, showing her young grandson the ingredients. Kouyaté studied hard and long, but his inclination to the kitchen never subsided.
“My grandmother always told me, ‘You never know what your future might be, so learn to cook for yourself before you lean on somebody to cook for you,’” Kouyaté said. “I’ve always wanted to be a chef, since I was 5 years old.”
Just two weeks before the coronavirus pandemic brought nationwide closures and restrictions in March, Kouyaté, now 41, was named executive chef of the historic Imperial Restaurant in Lancaster, an auxiliary of the attached Holiday Inn. The restaurant, operating at a limited capacity, is among the two dozen restaurants, food trucks, and chefs to be highlighted during Black Restaurant Week Philly, which starts Oct. 16 and runs through Oct. 25.
Typically Black Restaurant Week, founded in 2016, hosts in-person events, such as cooking classes, happy hours, and pop-up dinners, some on a discounted menu. This year, “we had to remove a lot of our live events,” said Falayn Ferrell, the organization’s cofounder. “The biggest thing we offered is free registration. We didn’t want the restaurants to feel financially strapped to participate. … That’s really helped our participation levels across the country." The Imperial won’t be offering a discounted menu.
On average, 12 restaurants in the Philadelphia region participate in Black Restaurant Week, Ferrell said. This year, the number of participants has doubled. The complete list of participating restaurants can be found on the organization’s website.
Last year, the Imperial’s co-owners John Meeder and Sam Wilsker were looking to fill a vacant executive chef position. “We were not inspired by a lot of the candidates coming forward,” Wilsker said in a recent interview. “All of a sudden, Chef [Kouyaté’s] resume came through,” and after reviewing his credentials, “we started digging to find out more.”
Kouyaté was raised mostly by his grandmother in Guinea but moved around because both his parents' jobs required extensive travel. His mother was a French drama teacher and worked in Valencia, Spain, and Marseille, France. His father was a missionary doctor who worked in several West African countries. Kouyaté speaks English, French, Chinese, Spanish, his native language, Mandingo, and dozens of African dialects. In 1996, Kouyaté worked as an interpreter for the United Nations.
Throughout the ’90s, Kouyaté lived in at least nine countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Tunisia. And in each new place, he familiarized himself about the local cuisine — like learning to make falafel in Marrakech, Morocco.
In 1998, he relocated to Washington where he worked for community organizations including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. He moved to Philadelphia in late 2019 to study radiology at Montgomery County Community College but withdrew from the program to pursue a culinary career. Before landing the role at the Imperial, he worked as head banquet chef at the Normandy Farm Hotel in Blue Bell.
“He brings his vision and stability to the restaurant," Meeder said. "He also brings a level of commitment that we’re really appreciative of. We had a pretty good program before him, but it was in need of someone like him.”
As the Imperial’s executive chef, Kouyaté revamped the entire menu. Some of his dishes include the popular salmon Toscana topped with creamy spinach, artichokes, capers, and sun-dried tomatoes, and the seared steak with house blackened seasoning.
Kouyaté said he tries to add a personal touch to every dish on the menu.
Despite Kouyaté's best efforts — diversifying the Imperial’s menu and invigorating his team of seven — business is still crawling. According to Wilsker, the restaurant is seeing only “30 percent of what we normally would earn" in a month. But October is “looking better,” Wilsker said.
“We’re connected to the hotel and the hotel’s occupancy has plummeted,” said Wilsker. “The other component is that people aren’t going out as much. … The state increasing restaurant occupancy from 25% to 50% didn’t really do much for us to be honest."
And while Imperial started to see an increase in take-out orders early on in the pandemic, the uptick has also tapered off. “We are maximizing our outdoor seating as much as possible. … But part of the experience is being in the restaurant’s atmosphere.”
The Imperial was built as a hotel in 1812 at the corner of East Chestnut and North Queen Street in Lancaster. It was demolished in 1912 and two years later the Brunswick Hotel opened and operated there until 1964. Because it’s located close to a major train station, several American presidents have visited during its 100-plus year history, including Abraham Lincoln, William Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt.
In 2013, the building was to be condemned as a nuisance property by city officials. The same year, Meeder and Wilsker purchased the property. After five years of renovations, the Imperial reopened in December 2018 with a modern, artsy vibe.
Several small chandeliers hang above the amber-colored booths and each table is punctuated with a tea candle. More than 50 paintings by Noelle Turco and photos that show the property’s history hang on the mustard and navy walls.
Wilsker said Imperial plans to keep its engines running for as long as possible and that the restaurant is eager to partner with organizations like Black Restaurant Week.
“It’s like ‘Kitchen Impossible’ for me,” Kouyaté said, referencing the Mission: Impossible film series starring Tom Cruise. “I want to make sure that we have something for everybody, so sometimes we make edits to the menu with things we already have here,” he said.