In the corner of the plaza near Fifth Street and East Eighth Avenue, the brick walls give no hint of the colorful décor and flavorful food held within Durango’s new takeout restaurant, Eat Zawadi. When customers enter, they are greeted with the smell of spices and dishes from all over Africa – the “gift” Chef Arnold Safari Ngumbao said he wanted to give to Durango.
The word zawadi means “gift” in Swahili, and it is also the name given to Chef Safari’s wife, as she was born during a gift-giving.
“I wanted to introduce the food as a gift,” Safari said. He was a chef with World Chefs Without Borders, a humanitarian aid initiative that establishes cooking training programs and infrastructure.
Through this program, Safari said he has cooked in every country in Africa.
“Everywhere I went, they thought they were learning from me,” Safari said. “But I was learning a lot from them.”
Eat Zawadi’s menu is a reflection of everything Safari learned as a World Chef Without Borders. He traveled from North Africa to South Africa, and said he wants to take customers on the “same safari through their palate.”
From Swahili plantains to coconut chutney, from Moroccan lamb to braised papaya, Chef Safari pulled what he thought people in Durango would enjoy from his experience and brought it to life first in the Smiley Café.
Safari was laid off from the DoubleTree Hotel in Durango after COVID-19 shattered the hospitality industry. Working with Grant Andrew, owner of Smiley Café, Safari brought his African cuisine to a booth there, and used the property in the plaza on East Eighth Avenue to cook the meals.
The first lunchtime Safari worked at Smiley Café, he cooked only 20 meals. They sold out within a half hour.
The next day, Safari prepared 40 meals, and they sold out within a half hour.
“I knew every member of the community was hitting the ceiling with food variety around here,” especially for takeout during COVID-19, Safari said. “I saw them ordering ordinary stuff like burgers and fries.”
Safari knew he could come up with dishes that were out of the ordinary. Given the popularity of Safari’s dishes, the location on East Eighth Avenue became the primary home for Eat Zawadi takeout. Since the restaurant opened about a month ago, Safari said he’s sold about 200 meals in four hours of operation per day.
“We’ve been very busy,” Safari said.
For a trained chef like Safari, who has worked all over the world, takeout boxes weren’t enough, he said. He and Andrew are looking for a new location to open a full-service restaurant, so he can give people the full experience of the different ingredients and dishes from Africa. With takeout boxes, he is limited in the plating and type of meals he can serve.
“As a chef, whenever you cook with passion and dedication, the results are outstanding,” Safari said.
With a full-service restaurant, Safari can serve things like African welcome drinks, made with tamarind, fresh ginger, squeezed sugar cane and other refreshing spices.
Eventually, Safari said he could see the restaurant having multiple locations across the city.
“The sky is the limit,” he said.
Safari originally came to Durango after meeting Rod Barker, owner of the Strater Hotel, at a resort in Zanzibar where he was working. Barker brought Safari to the Strater Hotel to teach the cooks there about African cuisine, and, in turn, Safari would learn from them about Coloradan and American cuisine, Barker said.
“He is so talented, and his knife skills are some of the best I’ve seen in my career,” Barker said. “I’m sure he’ll do great.”
The Strater Hotel served some of the dishes Safari is re-creating during a special dining experience, called Culinary Safari. When Safari announced his new restaurant on Facebook, he said people who had some of the dishes before, such as chicken tajin or the African dirt rice with beef, quickly shared the news with their friends and recommended they go try it.
“It’s a project that’s been shaped by COVID-19, in many ways for the better,” Andrew said.
Both Barker and Andrew said they enjoy working with Safari because he is a positive person and worker.
“He tries to make things work,” Andrew said. “He has infectious faith, belief and optimism.”
At least two days per week, Andrew, Safari and his wife, Lucy, as well as his children cook together or clean together in the restaurant. For Safari, their partnership is a symbol for the community.
“We can work together and share ups and downs together,” Safari said. “We can forget whatever is out there.”
Some of the dishes on the menu, such as the vegetable dirt rice, the beef dirt rice, the chapati unleavened bread and the falafel are all from his hometown in Kenya, but he hopes to incorporate many more onto the menu.
His father was a famous chef there, and at 9 years old, he started cooking with his father like he cooks now with his 9-year-old daughter, Sasha. Opening the restaurant has bonded the family, Safari said.
“What a journey,” he said.
In the kitchen, surrounded by African food, spices and music, Andrew said it is a great thing that Safari is bringing this cuisine to Durango.
“He’s worked throughout different cultures ... and he’s had to take some big leaps,” Andrew said. But the story of Eat Zawadi is “one that is still going.”