Photo Credit: V. Sheree Williams
Damel: The Senegalese-Owned Restaurant In Oakland That Fuses South American And African Cuisine
Born in Senegal, and now living in California, chef Oumar Diouf, became a popular name in Oakland after opening The Damel — a restaurant that offers a unique cuisine experience with its South American and African fusion food.
Opened last year, The Damel was originally launched as a food truck. Empanadas from Argentina, the Senegalese street food Dibi, and Afro-Brazilian dishes like Moqueca and Acarajé turned out to be a hit with residents in Oakland.
Now, the man and chef, who once had a difficult childhood, has become a successful entrepreneur in California.
“I was 13 when my dad passed away And my mom had to care for a family of six children. So I had a very rough childhood. One day I decided to help my mom in the kitchen to provide food for my big family, and I really enjoyed doing this activity that later would become a real job for me,” Diouf told Travel Noire.
Although his passion for cooking was born early in his life, it was soccer, that led him to become a chef.
“Soccer is a very popular sport in Senegal, and I was a great soccer player. My friend and I got the opportunity to go to Argentina to play there and help my family with the money I would make. Unfortunately, I got injured, and I was not able to play for one year. That’s why I decided to attend a culinary school and after graduation, I opened my first restaurant to offer empanadas,” he said.
While living in Argentina, he was always going to Brazil for vacation and to be close to the Afro-Brazilian culture.
“There aren’t Black people in Argentina. When I came to Brazil, which is just next door, I could see a lot of Black people. Everything is like Africa in Brazil.”
During his time in Brazil, Diouf was struck by the similarities between Brazilian cuisine and the food he ate growing up.
“In Bahia, which is the north of Brazil, most of their food was actually brought by enslaved Africans,” Diouf said. “So those cooking techniques, even the names, are very close to Africa— specially West Africa. One day, I was walking in the street and saw people selling acarajé, which was the same food I used to eat in my home country. I thought to myself ‘Why is it so similar?’ Acarajé is one of the reasons that I started my business. I decided to mix the technique of making Acarajé.”
Acarajé is a compound word which derives from the Yoruba language: “acará” (ball of fire) and “jé” (to eat), that is “to eat a ball of fire”. The small cake is made of black eyed beans, fried in palm oil, dried shrimps, and hot sauce.
In 2014, he met Chef Carlos Vasconcelos, who was responsible for organizing the food that was served during the World Cup in 2014.
“Also, during the Summer Olympics in 2016, I worked with him to cook for five houses (NBA house, Australian house, the Brazilian house, Casa Cartan and New Balance). I was leading all of those kitchens, and I was really proud of my job.”
After achieving success in Brazil, Diouf decided to move overseas. This time, the country chosen by the African chef was the United States, where he started a catering company called Afro-Brazilian Cuisine, or ABC in San Francisco.
“I decided to come to America for one simple reason. I always like to be in a competition. The best country in the world for culinary is America.“
Currently, he owns The Damel, the restaurant that offers a South American and African fusion food experience to guests.
The name Damel stands for ‘Strong man’, a title given to the king of the Wolof Empire, which was historically located in today’s Senegal. Aside from his Oakland restaurant, in the works is a new San Francisco location and a newly introduced food truck.