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Yuca salmon croquettes from Dakar Nola
Dakar Nola/Instagram

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Meet the Three Chefs Shaking Up New Orleans’s Pop-Up Scene

Serigne Mbaye, Samira Bechara, and Indigo “Soul” Martin are flexing their creativity via pop-ups in NOLA

New Orleans’s pop-up scene — thriving at the beginning of the year with daily options at bars and breweries, guest chefs and collaborations at notable restaurants, and wine and tiki bars — has changed immensely, along with the rest of the food and beverage industry in 2020. Home-based operations abound and delivery, certainly a first for most pop-ups, is now a priority for many.

Among the many talents currently flexing their creativity via pop-up in New Orleans are Samira Bechara serving Lebanese family recipes in an outdoor setting, Serigne Mbaye of pan-African pop-up Dakar Nola, and Indigo “Soul” Martin, taking over Canal Street’s Good Eden three days a week. Here, Eater highlights how the three chefs are shaking things up — from cuisine to mission to model — and making New Orleans’s food scene all the more vibrant for it.

Serigne Mbaye

What: Dakar Nola. Socially distanced, six-course ticketed tasting dinners ($85-$135) combining the tables of Louisiana and West Africa. Tables of 2, 4 and 6 available.

Where: A private Treme home steeped in African, Creole, and French history.

When: Every other Saturday; next dinner is on November 21. Find details on Instagram.

Family and culinary roots often intertwine. That is the case with chef Serigne Mbaye, 27, who was born in Harlem to Senegalese parents, but went to boarding school in Dakar. The influence of his family’s heritage on his palate sent him on a quest for gastronomic prowess around the world, cooking at kitchens from Commander’s Palace to the two and three-star Michelin kitchens L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in New York and Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. He’s put down roots here in New Orleans, a city he feels closely reflects the cultural gumbo of Senegal.

This year, Mbaye was awarded the Paul McIlhenny Culinary Scholarship at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, where he’s been holding regular Saturday pop-up meals exploring the connections between the foods of Louisiana and West Africa. Now, he’s on the move again, transitioning from lunch to his first sit down dinner series for the remainder of the fall season.

On past menus, Mbaye cooked some of his favorite Senegalese dishes, using local ingredients and Gulf seafood. For instance, soupa konja, Senegalese seafood okra gumbo, made with palm oil served with steamed rice. “The story of the dish might be a little different, but the concept is similar,” he said.

Benye is a popular street food in Dakar, puffy fried doughnuts, served warm and dusted with raw sugar, reminiscent of Nola’s iconic beignet for sure. Jolof, or benechin, is a one pot dish served throughout West Africa, which Mbaye makes with local red fish, vegetables, and Louisiana long-grain rice with a piquant onion sauce.

Until he opens a restaurant, Mbaye will be using a Treme manse with a history of African, Creole, and French owners, to set a more formal stage for his cuisine. Growing up around his mother’s restaurant business, he thought everyone knew that Senegalese cuisine is as evolved and complex as French, Italian, or Japanese food. He’s proving that true, knitting together a dining experience informed by experience in myriad kitchens, including Japanese, French, and Cuban — a true hybridization of flavors and technique. The idea is to bridge Senegalese culture with New Orleans’ Creole cuisine. “I think the timing is perfect.” And here’s an update: Mbaye will bring Dakar Nola to Bywater American Bistro Nov. 18, for a multi-course menu showcasing Africa’s indigenous ingredients along with chef Nina Compton’s particular take on Afro-Caribbean cuisine. Six courses, $75, cocktail pairing $35.

Samira Bechara

What: Le Beirut Nola. Lebanese family recipes served at ticketed outdoor prix fixe dinner in $70 range, sold in pairs, and including bottle of wine. Some proceeds benefit victims of Beirut explosion. Menu posted here.

Where: Sold through the Tell Me Club dinner speakeasy, location announced after purchase.

When: First Sunday of every month, 40 pairs of tickets available for two seatings.

If not for the pandemic, Samira Bechara would have been studying French at the American University in Beirut on August 4, the day a stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in the city’s port exploded. The toll, more than 204 dead, 6,500 injured, 300,000 homeless, was horrific. Bechara felt she had to act.

For her, it was personal because of her Lebanese family roots. Bechara’s dad is from the mountain town of Brummana overlooking Beirut, and the family spent four summers there when she was a child. “That’s where I learned to cook, with my grandmother and my dad. He cooked at home, not my mom,” she said. “My grandmother and I couldn’t converse because she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Arabic, but she showed me how to work dough and what tabouli should taste like, and these are tangible and workable expressions of love.”

Every year the family traversed Lebanon, exploring the country’s many Roman ruins and historic and cultural riches along the way. She was last there at 14, the same year her father sponsored his remaining family to come to the states, bringing the family together in America.

Bechara’s restaurant history is mostly front of the house and wine focused, in New York, Seattle, and L.A., as well as at places like N7 and Keife and Co. in New Orleans. For her, cooking is a passion. “Food is one of the ways we Lebanese express our love and share space with one another,” she said.

The food she prepares is not the kind you can get at your everyday restaurant, she explains. At a recent brunch for Beirut pop-up at 1000 Figs in Bayou St. John, dishes included pumpkin kibbe — layers of pumpkin and bulgur filled with chard and chickpeas cooked in pomegranate molasses — served with fattoush (bread salad). Kousa mehsi was another option, zucchini stuffed with meat and rice, braised in tomato sauce. Man’oushe’ is a Lebanese pizza topped with sumac, sesame, and ackawi cheese, a young cow’s milk cheese with a mild, slightly salty flavor. “These are dishes we would have for dinner when the whole family gets together,” she said.

The pop-ups she’s done to date have raised $5,500, before her first Tell Me Club dinner, which sold out two seatings of 20 guests each. The money goes directly to Lebanese NGOs helping the explosion victims get essentials like food and housing.

She’s excited to be one of four chefs popping on rotating Sundays with Tell Me Club speakeasy suppers, each benefiting a different NGO and featuring live music. “I have such a strong connection to Lebanon, this just feels like the right way to help and share love with friends along the way.”

Indigo “Soul” Martin

What: Indigo Soul Cuisine. Vegan a la carte dinners to eat on the patio or takeaway inspired by global flavors and local ingredients. Menu on Instagram.

Where: Good Eden, 2940 Canal St.

When: Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

There’s more going on at Good Eden — formerly Good Karma — than the usual takeout vegan dishes, tinctures, and kombucha these days. Chef Indigo Soul Martin, 27, is taking over the Canal Street space from Thursday to Sunday, offering his particular take on plant meets planet cuisine. He’s been eating at the vegan spot — which is now expanded into a larger dining space — for years and has practiced yoga at the adjacent Swan River Yoga studio.

“It’s a great space and perfect for where I am right now,” said Martin, who grew up shuttling between his mom in Ville Platte and his dad in New Orleans. His commitment to a vegan lifestyle bloomed over time, beginning in 2013 and solidifying over the next five years. “I saw people around me with high blood pressure and other health issues. That’s not where I want to be.”

He’s run his own catering business, Indigo Soul Cuisine, for close to three years and popped up at Sneaky Pickle in Bywater. His dishes take the diner on a journey to regions like West Africa, with the snack akara, a fritter made with black eyed peas that is a savory cousin to the calas rice fritters.

Then there’s the fried oyster mushroom banh mi with lemongrass sauce and pickled vegetables and herbs served with a salad of squash, beans, and corn that illustrates the Mesoamerican tradition of growing those crops together. Katsu curry is layered with sweet potatoes, eggplant, and kimchee. For brunch, there will be sweet potato waffles and a vegan version of shrimp and grits made with barbecue oyster mushrooms braised in a cream sauce over polenta.

“I’m young and this is my first shot on my own,” said Martin. “I’m on the way to having a full-fledged place, but this is perfect for right now.”

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