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In these turbulent and divisive times, we could all use a gastronomic champion of cultural exchange that bolsters New York City’s rightly celebrated reputation as a melting pot. As luck would have it, our neighborhoods already have one, our November Business of the Month: Berber Street Food at 35 Carmine Street, where you can enjoy both unique Afro-fusion street food shaped by culinary influences from around the globe, as well as the restaurant’s notably warm hospitality.
Berber Street Food is the brainchild of Diana Tandia, a half-Berber, half-Sarkhole chef hailing from Mauritania. Diana moved to the United States to go to college, during which time she worked as a waitress and hostess at several high-end restaurants to pay for her expenses. Along the way, she fell in love with cooking and with the operation of these establishments. She recalls, “the whole operation was like a regimented army. But beautiful things were happening every night.”
After college, Diana decided to pursue this passion by enrolling at the French Culinary Institute, where she focused on international cuisine. Having completed her training, she worked at several exclusive restaurants, such as Daniel, Spice Market, and Per Se. She also had the opportunity to travel to various parts of Asia — Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand, among others — and wherever she went, Diana made a point of taking cooking classes and seeking connections to local cooks. She would then ask them to let her assist, either as part of a sort of cooking technique swap, or in exchange for modest remuneration. But many were so thrilled by Diana’s interest in their cooking they readily welcomed her without asking for anything in return. Through these arrangements, Diana learned about local produce and food preparations, and worked at numerous night markets. She was excited during these visits to notice the similarities she saw between street food culture in Asia and back home in Africa, and found inspiration for her own emerging path as a professional chef. She explains:
Street food is not being cheap, but bringing people together by feeding them authentic flavorful food. I realize, being a chef, that if you want to know a country, if you want to know people, the best way is to gather with them and sit in the street and eat with them. And I really like that concept.
Back in New York, Diana started catering out of a kitchen that she rented in Brooklyn. But noticing an under-representation of African food in the city, she felt the time was right to open a restaurant that might offer a more visible platform for her gastronomic vision: She would apply French cooking techniques to African street cooking (just like her former boss, Spice Market’s Jean Georges, did for Thai food), using African spices injected with an Asian flair. Because Africa is a vast place and African food so diverse (and all the more if you include the diaspora), the menu would change every three months, offering Diana’s take on cuisines from major regions of the continent (eg, a tagine from the north, a Mauritanian lamb and djolof fried rice from the west, a Kenyan style charred chicken from the east, a steak and fries sandwich from the south, and jerk chicken from the diaspora). And in order to accommodate all customers, the menu would offer both vegan and (halal) “meat explorer” street bites and specialties.
Because Diana lacked investor capital to launch her restaurant, she sought a small space for her venture, and found the perfect location on Carmine Street. The seating would be limited to fifteen spots, but she hoped that the restaurant would draw people in and promote her ongoing catering business.
Embraced from the get-go by locals, some of whom would eat there multiple times a week, Berber Street Food was an immediate success. Those who dined in were sure to meet the chef. Diana makes it a point to come out and talk to all her patrons. And, as planned, any given satisfied diner, and even any curious passer-by who picked up a (soon-to-be-best-selling) Afro-fusion Bowl on a whim, might, on occasion, translate into a catering order for eighty people.
Given the size of the restaurant’s kitchen and staff, the sudden popularity created its own challenges, and made Diana grateful for her training on running a great restaurant. Still, the effort comes at a cost:
It’s challenging. It’s difficult. And it’s a lot of sacrifice and long hours of labor, to be honest. But I love it. Nothing makes me happier than putting a smile on people’s face. I want to bring the warm hospitality of Africa to the West Village.
COVID posed a fresh new set of problems for Berber Street Food, as it has for small businesses throughout the neighborhood and, indeed, throughout the world. All catering orders came to halt. People were scared to come to work, and Diana had to lay off her staff and take on most of the operation of the restaurant herself. Outdoor dining helped before it got cold, as did take-out orders.
She also benefited from unexpected windfalls. The restaurant, which had already donated thirty meals to first responders, received a call from an unknown customer who wanted to place an order for NYU doctors. This subsequently became 8 weeks worth of meals. Diana filled similar orders for New York Presbyterian and Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem. The business, however, has not yet fully recovered from the pandemic.
There remain supply problems, some of which have led Diana to buy African spices in bulk and grind them herself. Food has become more expensive, which has forced her to cut costs by eliminating plating and embracing a street food presentation more fully. In all, however, Diana counts herself lucky to have stayed afloat, and is grateful for the support she has received from local people and from local independent businesses nearby, such as Prodigy Coffee and Berimbau, who often lent a hand during the pandemic.
Recently, Diana was asked to cater an event for an African nonprofit launched by Americans while working in Liberia. The guest of honor, Diana was surprised to learn, was Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen John Sirleaf, the former multiple-term president of Liberia. Sirleaf, who leads an organization that encourages women in leadership positions, looked upon Diana with pride. Asked about Sirleaf’s reaction to Berber Street Food, Diana reports:
She was shocked to see that I am Black, I am African, I am the chef, and I own the restaurant.
For its innovation and pathfinding, and for reimagining the flavors of the world and bringing them to the West Village, we are thrilled to name Berber Street Food our November 2021 Business of the Month.
Stop by at 35 Carmine Street or visit their website.
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Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: