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New York African Restaurant Week 2015: Akin Akinsanya On Building NYC's African Culinary Empire

Akin Akinsanya speaks on building NYC's African culinary empire ahead of the 2015 New York African Restaurant Week.


New York African Restaurant Week founder Akin Akinsanya (Photo provided by NYARW)

African cuisine has arrived in New York City. That's the message that Akin Akinsanya, the founder and Executive Producer of New York African Restaurant Week (NYARW), wants to get across.

The Nigerian-born Wall Street consultant felt the momentum was there a few years ago, particularly with innovations like African Fashion Week NY. "I wanted to create a platform to bring people together," he explains. "It's an opportunity to celebrate the food and the culture together." He launched NYARW in the fall of 2013 to an immediate media buzz. Once he got the ball rolling, he found that chefs and restaurant owners began to approach him. "It got bigger and bigger. We have more chefs involved this year. The event is growing – this year over 25 restaurants are involved."

NYARW is now a biannual happening. Along with special prix fixe menus at a number of restaurants, the week will also see a number of live music and DJ’ed events. The first annual Ms Iya Oge Food & Fashion Showcase will combine the work of the city's up-and-coming crop of African designers with samplings from a variety of restaurants.

As the population of Africans in the city continues to grow, so does the number of African restaurants. "There are over 50 African restaurants in the metropolitan area," Akin says. Some have stayed the distance, like Massawa, a family-owned business specializing in traditional dishes from Ethiopia and Eritrea that opened over 25 years ago in Morningside Heights. Their tried and true approach to the favorites has meant continued success and a diverse clientele.

According to Akin, many of the city’s African restaurants have stuck close to their roots, like Brooklyn's Jollof Restaurant and its menu of traditional Senegalese dishes like yassa ganar (chicken braised in onion and lemon sauce) and fried plantains, or Farafina Café Lounge in upper Harlem, where traditional West African dishes like Kan Kan Kan Lamb Dibi (charcoal grilled lamb steak with onion sauce) are on the menu. "I think it's still very authentic although people are getting more creative," Akin says.

Others take a more liberal approach to traditional African culinary methods and ingredients. One such place is chic Harlem eatery The Cecil, who were named Esquire’s Best New Restaurant in America 2014 for their fusion of Asian, American and African cuisines. Their menu offers choices like West African Chicken Suya and Collard Greens Salad along with creations like Afro/Asian/American Jumbo. The restaurant’s location itself is significant - The Cecil was the former home of Minton's Playhouse, the legendary nightclub where Thelonious Monk once played on the keys and bebop was born.

Lenox Saphire is a flashy high-end addition to the mix where you can sample French pastries along with traditional West African dishes for what they're calling the "Afro-Harlem experience."

It's not only a Harlem or Brooklyn phenomenon, though. African cuisine has made it downtown too. The Ponty Bistro's first location (a newer one recently opened in Harlem) is located near Gramercy Park. Senegalese-born owners and Executive Chefs Alhadji A. Cisse and Chekh Cisse (the first African contestant and finalist on Food Network's Chopped) are cousins who've created a contemporary version of West African and Senegalese cuisine using European methods. Their menu offers a fusion of French, African, and Mediterranean dishes like Niokolokoba, which features grilled sirloin marinated in Senegalese spices with an optional au poivre sauce.

For Akin, adding to the recognition of African chefs and African cuisine is a goal he had in mind from the beginning. "I must say I'm very proud," he admits. "Doing this in the African way is becoming more common. More people are becoming aware of African cuisine. I've not only made more people aware of it, I've brought them together."

"I see this becoming an institution in New York City," he says.

New York African Restaurant Week 2015 takes place May 31st through June 14th.

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Former UN Secretary General and Nobel Peace Laureate, Kofi Annan, Has Died

The celebrated Ghanaian humanitarian and the first black African to serve as head of the UN, passed away on Saturday at the age of 80.

Kofi Annan, the seventh UN Secretary General and Nobel Peace Laureate, passed away on Saturday morning following a brief illness. "His wife Nane and their children Ama, Kojo and Nina were by his side during the last days," read a family statement. He was 80.

Annan was the first black African to serve as head of the United Nations, holding the prestigious position from 1997 to 2006. He was lauded for his global humanitarian work, eventually earning Annan and the UN a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for "their work for a better organized and more peaceful world."

Annan was head of the UN during the onslaught of the Iraq War, proving to be one of the most challenging global events to occur under his time as Secretary General and one of the most divisive of the early 21st century. "I think the worst moment of course was the Iraq war, which as an organization we couldn't stop—and I really did everything I can to try to see if we can stop it," he said in 2006.

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On "Made For Now," which features Puerto Rican reggaeton titan Daddy Yankee, Janet Jackson does what she's done successfully so many times throughout her decades-long career: provide an infectious, party-worthy tune that's fun and undeniably easy to dance to. "If you're living for the moment, don't stop," Jackson sings atop production which fuses dancehall, reggaeton and afrobeats.

The New York-shot music video is just as lively, filled with eye-catching diasporic influences, from the wax-print ensembles and beads both Janet and her dancers wear to the choreographed afrobeats-tinged dance numbers, which see the dancers hitting the Shoki at one point in the video. The train of dancers travel throughout the streets of Brooklyn, taking over apartment buildings and rooftops with spirited moves.

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For his latest single, "Saa Ara," he teams up with award-winning rapper Kwesi Arthur and gifted lyricist Akan.

The brilliant fusion of vintage highlife instrumentals and booming hip-hop beats, along with Kwesi Arthur's lively chorus and Akan's fiery delivery gives the song a very spiritual and classical feel.

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