How Ethiopia Came to Bushwick
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
“I’m not Ethiopian; I’m a red-neck from Texas.” Sam Saverance said between bites of misir wot, a dark red mash of lentils wrapped in a folded injera, a squashy Ethiopian bread.
We were sitting at Bunna Cafe, a vegan Ethiopian Bushwick eatery that he and his friends, Liyuw Ayalew and Kedega Srage co-founded. Seated at the front of the restaurant near the windows, we overlooked the other tables decorated in the same orange, greens and browns on our plate. The Cafe is stereotypical Brooklyn. With an exposed brick wall and a massive bar, it could be confused for a new-age Bushwick joint. But the centerpiece, a large grass roof covered stage is Ethiopian both in form and function. Employees prepare the coffee ceremony, the impetus for the restaurant and pillar of Ethiopian culture, on that stage over a traditional "rekbot", a large wooden chest.
Sam and Liyuw started Bunna Cafe five years ago and brought on their chef, Kedega a year into the project. Bunna, coffee in Amharic, began as a pop-up coffee ceremony that eventually evolved into a roaming Ethiopian food shop moving between dinner parties and events such as Smorgasburg. Two years into the business, the trio gained enough traction to host a lunch counter at Mama Joy's, a Bushwick southern-style comfort joint. Four months later, Mama Joy's went out of business, but Sam, Liyuw, and Kedega raised enough money with an Indiegogo campaign to buy the location. Bunna Cafe was a brick-and-mortar business.
The restaurant attracted both locals in Bushwick and Ethiopians from other areas of the city -- there isn't much of an Ethiopian presence in Bushwick. The buzz caught the attention of the local press and interviews came rolling in. The most common question Sam fielded: “Why Ethiopian?”
To put it frankly, Sam is white. He blends in perfectly in Bushwick - man bun, jeans, t-shirt, and glasses - but not at an Ethiopian restaurant. When I asked him, “Why Ethiopian?” He started by saying that he’s just always been “nuts” about other cultures. He was raised for a short time in Europe and then plopped in suburban Dallas. He memorized an atlas and 'escaped' from the day-to-day monotony of the sprawling 'burbs by exploring other places, first in books and then in his travels. His passion specifically for Ethiopia began with an interest in African culture and fascinations of how people lived in other countries.
“But Ethiopia, man, there’s something just wild about it - wildly sophisticated,” he said while describing the rich history of the country, the dramatic landscapes, and the elegant designs. He was mesmerized by the people, who as he explains with a sly smile, “live passionately.”
A trait that is translated into the food, not just in the earthy and perfectly spiced taste but the vibrant and graphic colors.
“A lot of passion is wrapped up in the food,” Sam said. The flavors and communal traditions associated with eating are what made Ethiopian food so delicious to him. “People hand-feed each other,” he explained. Eating is a communal event that Sam perceived as a way to break down social barriers in an especially hierarchical society as Ethiopia. He was quick to note that, that's his opinion -- “I’m not trying to re-appropriate their culture.”
Five years ago, he wasn’t even trying to open a restaurant. When he got back from his travels abroad, he was just craving the food and began eating at a local spot in Harlem, home to a small Ethiopian community composed mostly of immigrants from the 1990s who were fleeing civil war, when he met Liyuw.
“He used to come to an Ethiopian restaurant that I used to work on in Harlem also we used to study, work in the same coffee spot. I see him in both places, and one day we decided to have a conversation.” Liyuw explained.
Liyuw quiet upon first meeting was kind with an easy smile. When Sam went to tend to some restaurant matters, Liyuw sat down with me. He described how his conversations with Sam led to talks about Ethiopia which resulted in further discussions about how they could showcase Ethiopian culture in the U.S. When Liyuw first moved to New York, he was upset with the image most Americans had of Ethiopia as a poverty-stricken country, rife with problems.
“I wanted to do something to celebrate what we have.”
So, Liyuw and Sam decided to host coffee ceremonies. Earlier in the day, Sam described coffee as “...the identity of the country. It’s grown in people’s backyards, people grab some beans, then talk to people about their day.” Sam and Liyuw believed that coffee, a communal, celebratory event for most Ethiopians would give Americans a chance to learn more about Ethiopia and to hopefully smash some stereotypes.
And today with the Bunna buzzing with Ethiopians and Americans alike, eating, chatting, sharing, and drinking coffee, Liyuw believes that the Cafe is accomplishing their original goal. It hasn't completely dispelled the negative images of Ethiopia but it does allow Americans to “...see a good, deep, culture that people [Ethiopians] do every day.”
“I don’t want people to think, 'Who is this hipster trying to teach people about Ethiopian food?” says Sam. Even though Kedega and Liyuw teasingly call him ‘the ambassador’ mainly for his role in managing marketing and the press, Sam wants the food and the Ethiopians employees to speak for their culture.
And many Ethiopians who work and patron the restaurant do. Rachel Yaso, a tall striking woman performing the coffee ceremony that day talked about how before she came to Bunna she felt more like an Israeli than an Ethiopian. Her family fled from Ethiopia to Israel when she was a child. She grew up in Israel and just recently moved to New York.
“It smells like home, comfort, love,” Rachel said as she roasted the beans for the coffee ceremony. “I was raised Israeli, and here [New York] it was different; in how I see myself as an Ethiopian.” She shakes the beans over the fire, back and forth, the same motion her mother and her mother before her did in Ethiopia. “It smells like burnt coffee.” She smiles under her gray with dark green, yellow, and red head scarf, “...but not in a bad way.”