Chaima Dan-merogo Maradi often gets asked for the story of why she left Africa for the United States 15 years ago, but her answer is usually just three words.
“I followed love,” she says, referring to her move following the man of her dreams.
And her now-husband, Boubakar Souleman, followed love in turn when, in 2012, he helped his wife realize her dream of opening her namesake restaurant—Chaima African Cuisine. (Chaima is pronounced “shy-ma.”)
“He knew how much I loved cooking, how passionate I am, how much I talk about it,” Maradi says. “He wanted me to be happy. He said, ‘I don’t quite understand it, but I’ll jump on board with you.’”
Restaurant ownership is a huge commitment, Maradi says, with six-day workweeks and days that begin with morning prep and run through lunch and dinner service ending at 9 or 10 p.m. In addition to operating the restaurant near 108th and Q streets, last year Maradi bought a food truck, which appears at festivals and events throughout the city. Meanwhile, they are raising a family that includes two busy teenagers, a 6-year-old, and a 4-year-old.
“Sometimes I’m in here from time A to time Z. It’s a long day,” Maradi says. “It’s a lot of work.”
But it’s work she fully embraces because it makes the business she loves thrive.
“It’s an everyday life, and it’s a normal American life. When I read or listen about successful entrepreneurs, I’m like, ‘There’s nothing I’m doing wrong here. I should be proud of myself,’” she says. “This is what it takes…I have to keep pushing.”
Maradi still remembers her earliest days in the kitchen as a 9-year-old in her native Togo.
“The very first-ever thing I created was crepes,” she recalls. Her efforts were so successful that her crepes became a family tradition for Eid, a principal Muslim festival. At an age when most children can barely make toast, Maradi began experimenting with food, recreating fare she’d sampled elsewhere, trying out recipes from magazines, and even concocting new dishes.
“I just liked to get into my own corner and duplicate what I’d seen,” she says. As a young newlywed in the U.S., she turned to cooking to help her acclimate to American culture.
“When my husband was at work, I watched television. Food Network—that was my friend!” she says. “Emeril, he was the star of the show at that time. So that’s what I would do, watch Food Network, try to understand what they mean by everything because some of the vegetable names and things were completely different.”
Sometimes the food wouldn’t turn out the way she wanted, but Maradi would try again, and she had far more hits than misses.
“I would cook and then dish it, portion it into plates, and look for people who were actually willing to taste it,” she says. It took little persuasion for her husband’s friends and colleagues to become taste-testers, and word traveled quickly.
“Everybody loved her food—everybody,” Souleman says.
It wasn’t long before people began suggesting that Maradi open her own restaurant. She “wasn’t ready” at first, but Maradi says her confidence and customer service skills increased through employment as a grocery store cashier and later in a nursing home, which also helped sharpen her English. Eventually she leased space in a commercial kitchen, which ultimately led to the launch of Chaima at the repeated urging of friends and acquaintances.
“I heard it so many times: ‘I love your food and you’re so good at what you’re doing.’ At some point I said, ‘Maybe I should,’” Maradi says.
Chaima has supported fundraisers for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Maradi, who’s proud to call herself a feminist, has also supported organizations like Congokazi, which advocates for Congolese women, and Global Partners in Hope, which assists impoverished communities around the world. She says her restaurant is another means of sharing culture and fostering understanding.
“Food always starts a conversation and brings a group of people to a table,” she explains. “People pushing, and trying to bridge the gap between fellow Americans and myself, that was my recipe of starting a restaurant in Omaha.”
Maradi’s business instincts are as good as her cooking. Chaima is the only West African restaurant in the area, so Maradi’s menu features photos of each dish and descriptions of ingredients to help Midwesterners ease into a new cuisine.
“I figured out that you eat ‘with your eyes’ first. So if it looks good, it’s going to appeal to you, you’re going to take the chance to read what it is,” she says.
Maradi shops at two African groceries in the city and a fruteria in South Omaha, but also purchases supplies at warehouse stores “like anybody else.” Many ingredients will be familiar to Americans, Maradi says, like chicken, beef kebabs, cabbage, tomato, tilapia, noodles, and rice. She even offers French fries and chicken wings on an appetizer menu. Entrée names are a combination of French—the official language of Togo—and “Mina,” a language predominant in southeastern Togo. Dishes with Togo origins are most prevalent, but the Chaima menu also features cuisine from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, and Ivory Coast.
“Once you make it in here, we want you to stay,” Maradi says, so she has placed Midwestern-friendly dishes on the first page of the menu. “That’s what I tell people; if you want to be in the ‘OK zone,’ you can’t go wrong with anything in the top four here,” she says. A noodle dish called Spaghetti Creole, Riz au Gras and Poulet (chicken and rice), and Amadan (fried plantains, noodles, veggies, and meat) are among the dishes leading the listings. Riz Creole, which overtook Riz au Gras as Chaima’s top seller soon after its introduction, appears at the very top. But diners won’t find it on the menu of any other West African restaurant anywhere, because it’s a one-of-a-kind dish invented by Maradi.
“I like playing with flavors,” she says. Maradi has made concessions to the American palate and cultural expectations, for example, using lamb in dishes that would usually call for goat, or presenting her hot sauce and fried tomato sauce on the side. But she enjoys answering questions from curious guests and is happy to make recommendations. Diners who want to try something new can look further into the menu for novel ingredients like African yams—“more like potatoes than American yams”—or fufu, a starchy staple made in part from cassava, a root vegetable.
Chaima continues to evolve, and Maradi is always working on new offerings, like gyros and a plantain-based veggie burger. For fellow Muslim families, she’s developing versions of American fare like hamburgers and chicken nuggets that comply with Islamic dietary rules. Maradi has also begun bottling and distributing her popular pineapple citrus drink.
“We never gave up regardless of how hard things were getting; we kept pushing and pushing. Customers, friends that believe in us, and all of those good reviews on Yelp mentioning how good the food is kept me going,” Maradi says. “To see someone try my food and go, ‘Oh. My. God,’ that’s rewarding for me right there. It just makes me happy.”
To learn more, visit Chaima African Cuisine on Facebook at @chaimaafricancuisine.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.