Chef Oumar Diouf has led a pretty interesting life. And at The Damel, his new Uptown Oakland restaurant that opened in June, he wants to tell his story through Afro-Brazilian cuisine.
Diouf was born in Senegal. He got his start cooking at age 13, when his father passed away. His mother had seven children, and watching her struggle to work and take care of household duties on her own, Diouf asked her to teach him to cook.
He helped his mother out in the kitchen until he went to college. After college, he headed to Argentina to pursue a career in soccer. When an injury sidelined his career, Diouf decided to attend culinary school. He went on to own restaurants in Argentina — his first was selling pizza and empanadas — then moved to Brazil, where he worked in hotels and catering businesses. As a caterer in Brazil, he served thousands of people at the World Cup and the Olympics.
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 ... about 80 percent of their food was actually brought by slaves 500 years ago," Diouf said. "So those cooking style techniques, even the name[s are] very close from Africa — especially West Africa."
Those similarities, along with an Anthony Bourdain episode about the Bahia region, inspired Diouf to pursue an Afro-Brazilian style of cooking. In 2016, Diouf moved to the Bay Area, and soon after started a catering company called Afro-Brazilian Cuisine, or ABC. In addition to Afro-Brazilian Cuisine, he now runs The Damel, a casual, counter-service, permanent pop-up located inside 25th Street Taproom (2507 Broadway).
At The Damel, the menu reflects Diouf's lived experience in Senegal, Argentina, and Brazil. A section of the menu is devoted to baked Argentinian empanadas, most of which follow traditional recipes. But some empanadas, like the beef, chicken, and lamb, get a West African treatment by spicing them with ginger and garlic. Others, like the palmito (heart of palm) are inspired by Brazilian flavors and ingredients. The empanada-like fataya, meanwhile, is actually Senegalese — it's fried and stuffed with tuna and shrimp.
Diouf also draws from a range of influences when it comes to the appetizers. Coxinhas, or cone-shape deep-fried chicken croquettes, are a must-have in Brazil. Acarajé, or black-eyed pea fritters, are commonly found both in West Africa and Brazil. Sandwiches and salads are also on the menu, along with dibi, a Senegalese dish of grilled meat served with mustard and grilled onions. Diouf also plans to serve two daily specials, one from Senegal and one from Brazil, featuring dishes like ceebu jen (Senegalese jollof rice with fish) and feijoada (Brazilian meat and bean stew).
Above all, Diouf's goal is to demonstrate the influence of African cuisine — not just in Brazil, but all over the world.
"A lot of dance has African background, a lot of fashion has African background, but food, too, has an African background," Diouf said. "And that's what I want to stand for — to try to take back what's from us and have people that want to find more about their ancestors ... eating the same food their ancestors brought from Africa to here."
The Damel is currently open for dinner and is experimenting with lunch hours. Late-night empanadas are also available on Fridays and Saturdays until 2 a.m., and weekend brunch is coming soon. To learn more, visit TheDamel.com.