MONCTON – Makhtar Niang was always inspired when he saw customers enjoy the meals his mother cooked at their restaurant in Thies, Senegal. When he met Karen Ouattara, an Ivorian who has loved cooking since she was young, they decided to partner up and open Barakat African Cuisine in Moncton.
“Seeing my mom cooking was a big deal for me because she made it with love,” says Niang. “When you like something and you do it, you put that feeling. And that made me like it too much to see people like the restaurant.”
Niang and Ouattara came to New Brunswick as international students. Niang studied biochemistry at Université de Moncton. Ouattara got a degree in psychology from Mount Allison University but moved to Moncton after to pursue further studies at NBCC.
Ouattara said she stayed because she feels at home in Moncton.
“After a while, you get used to a certain way of life here,” she says. “Settling back home would mean a lot more changes. It’s been, what? five years? You’ve kinda made this place your home.
“And it’s not a bigger city like where we come from, so there’s a lot of things that you can do here and still be able to be comfortable. So the vibe of the city is nice for me. And I feel there’s also a lot of diversity, which is interesting. You get a little bit of everyone, everywhere in the same spot and it’s not as crowded.”
Makhtar, a new father, also likes the quiet of a smaller city. But he initially stayed for his wife, an international student who hadn’t finished her schooling when they married in 2014.
“I had to get a job and live here until she got done. And when I stayed, I met more people. So many people who encourage you to stay,” he says.
As a student, Ouattara used to cater for small parties. Niang, on the other hand, sold African food his friend made to co-workers. The business partners bonded over their passion for food when they worked together at Nordia in Moncton.
“It’s a funny thing, but cooking is a stress reliever for me,” says Ouattara. “So if I’m feeling a little tense I just go into the kitchen and I can whip four, five different dishes and then I’m good after that.”
At Barakat, Ouattara and Niang want to offer an experience of the African culture. They worked with Design From Africa for the seat- and table-covers.
“We want people to know about the continent through food, yes,” she says, “but also in the environment, in the restaurant, the setting that’s there, so we have little touches of Africa here and there.”
The pair will mainly serve popular dishes from their home region of West Africa like grilled chicken with attieke, a couscous-like staple food made out of cassava.
For ingredients that are difficult to source, Barakat partners with Baobab, an African grocery store a few doors down from the restaurant. For instance, to make Thiep Bou Djien, a Senegalese rice with fish, Ouattara would need the yete, which is pronounced “yet.”
“It’s a sea snail. It’s kind of, like, smoked to preserve it so it just adds aroma to whatever it is you’re making. You just use it for the smell,” she says.
But they also want to feature cuisine from other parts of the continent.
“We can’t have a really large menu with every dish from every country. So we just kind of regroup the main dishes from West Africa and then we’ll feature special dishes every Wednesday from a country at a time. So one time it could be Nigeria, next Wednesday it could be Ghana and so on and so forth,” Ouattara explained.
Niang and Ouattara plan to hire six people at their 28-seat restaurant.
Barakat African Cuisine opened on Feb. 10 at 331 Elmwood Drive.