"Buka": African slang for a hole-in-the wall joint, a comfort food spot, the place to be. BUKA in Brooklyn, NY is definitely the place to go for some authentic Nigerian comfort food, but "hole-in-the-wall," it is not. This refined eatery has a cool downtown vibe with its modern decor along with its down-home accents of Naija pride flaunted in a green and white banner hanging over the bar. Such a lively spirit BUKA encompasses; festive afrobeats fill the room and the walls are adorned with some of the city's most intriguing contemporary African artworks.
From the New York Times to the Village Voice, the Western world has been raving about BUKA for years. We wanted to experience this place for ourselves, so we made our way over to Brooklyn to dine with owner Lookman Mashood. See our table talk below.
AFRICA FOOD DAILY: BUKA! The name alone evokes a smile. How were you able to create a place that feels less like a restaurant and more like a movement?
LOOKMAN MASHOOD: The idea is to believe in yourself and to find people that will join you. For me to tell you the story about BUKA I need to tell you about myself. I came to the country in 1996 and the first job I had was washing dishes on Washington avenue. That place was, really, so popular that people still talk about it. When I left the place in 1998, everywhere I went people always said, "you need to open a Nigerian restaurant because you are a great chef." People were asking me about the restaurant and I always knew that it needed to be done. When the time came, I made up my mind to do it and I went to my girlfriend (Natalie) and I [told her] "I know I can trust you and I know you will support me." Here we are.
AFD: Why did you choose Brooklyn as the location of your restaurant?
MASHOOD: Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn! Oh my God I love Brooklyn so much I can't stop saying it! I love Brooklyn so much, especially this part, ever since I have been in this country -- for 17 years. This part of Brooklyn is the only part that I really love this much. With every step you take you are stepping into another country. Between a one mile radius you can find 100 different restaurants from around the world. This is America.
AFD: The menu is very traditional fare, so it seems straight forward enough to create. But were there any challenges in translating Nigerian staples for a New York audience?
MASHOOD: No it was not challenging at all. People come to my restaurant and look at the menu and they love all the Nigerian national food. [This month] I am going to be introducing food from the north of Nigeria -- that is the only thing we are missing.
AFD: A lot of your customers - and press - are very Western and mainstream. What do you think attracts them to a venue that's very strongly Nigerian?
MASHOOD: Let me tell you what I think we did right. I refused to be influenced by the people who said, "why do you want to open an African restaurant? It will be a lot of money and people will not come for our food." People would say, "why don't you make it African- American or Caribbean- American." But what we have is unique and fantastic! It's good food. I can tell you, 98% of my food is not processed. I can't make American burgers like an American. Nobody will come here and buy burgers. New York has a eight million population, I can't feed everyone and I don't have any regrets. I feel like whatever you have, if you do it right, people will love you for it.
AFD: What has been your most fulfilling experience in launching this restaurant?
MASHOOD: A lot of my friends say "Lookman, if a state governor comes, I will bring him to BUKA." Or if they go out with their girlfriend, they'll bring them to BUKA. If they are going out with their family, they are going to bring them to BUKA. I want to create a place that every Nigerian, whether they like me or not, can feel proud of what I created. You sit here and you see one guy is a white American, another guy is another race, and the crowd is very mixed. And [the customers] eat the food in the traditional way; they are using their hands to eat.
AFD: What is BUKA like on a Friday night?
MASHOOD: Fantastic! We have jazz and we have a great dinner crowd.
AFD: We have to ask, any relation to the famed BUKA in Accra, Ghana?
MASHOOD: No not at all. People always ask me that! It's a coincidence (laughs). BUKA is a original idea that I had. I want to open another one!
Special thanks to Lookman for sharing his inspiring story with us. Check out what we dished on in our food review story. If you are in the NYC area, be sure to visit BUKA a t 946 Fulton Street Brooklyn, NY 11238.
Kadia Blagrove is the Managing Editor of Africa Daily Groupe and a writer for all things cultural. Follow her on Twitter @KazzleDazz.
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