When was the last time you had a home cooked Togolese dinner inside a bodega after hours with a group of strangers and a DJ? Probably never. The “WOÉZÕ Comfort” meal is one of the offerings on Feastly, an online platform that aims to reintroduce the home cooked meal, connecting adventurous eaters with local cooks. The WOÉZÕ dinner (pronounced “way-zoh,” cooked by Peace Corps alum Mitch Bloom, takes place monthly in Bed-Stuy Fresh and Local, a grocery store run by neighborhood couple Dylan Ricards and Sheila Akbar. The produce gets pushed to the side and a long communal table is set up just in front of the door.
The guests who don’t fit on the benches sit on produce crates, a surprisingly sturdy option made less surprising when you discover that Dylan and Sheila built out the homey bodega themselves. The shelves are made of discarded doors that came directly from their nearby apartment building when it got renovated. More than just a dinner, WOÉZÕ becomes a way of life as Mitch so convincingly demonstrates.
A Togolese greeting that should be responded to with “Yoooooo,” the group of 15 guests practice the exchange collectively before the dinner starts. Throughout the four course meal, Mitch tells exuberantly of his two year experience as a volunteer in a village in Togo. He learned this oeuvre of Togolese dishes from his next door neighbor and her husband, with whom he cooked and dined with every evening under the stars. Mitch has a bachelor degree in nutrition and a Masters in food initiatives from New York University, so the partnership with Bed-Stuy Fresh and Local, which brings fresh, healthy offerings to a previously underserved area, is a good fit.
As Mitch says, he hopes to bring people through food to a corner of the world very few people go to. In fact, the dinner is infused with food items with cultural importance in Togo like the beer of choice, Guinness (pronounced “ghee-niss”), boxed wine and Johnny Walker Black Label. At the same time, the dinner has a New York flavor too. In Togo, the whisky is reserved for the most important of guests, but here Mitch hands out small glass cups and pours everyone a shot. The Togolese Bissap cocktail of hibiscus tea is sweetened with maple syrup from the Hudson Valley, mixed with gin from the New York Distilling Company. The delicious “Yovo” salad is made of a half avocado smothered in roasted sweet corn, red onion, and steamed dice beats, topped with cilantro and homemade sriracha. “Yovo” is Togolose for “foreigners” and as Bloom describes, “Although all the ingredients can be found in Togo, it’s probably only a Yovo that would make a salad like this.”
The main course is a staple the Togolese call “La Pâte,” West African smooth polenta with ginger stewed okra and onions, topped with a choice of braised beef or garlic-sauteed oyster options (or both). Bloom explains that La Pâte is typically eaten by the right hand. Next is the “Koliko,” white yam fries with a ginger gazpacho sauce made of heirloom tomato puree, ginger, onion, and spices. The last course is a plate of tropical fruits and dark chocolates.
Throughout the night, DJ Temisphere spins in the corner. A warm glow emanates from the large storefront windows (with a central stained glass piece) onto the otherwise quiet, residential streets of Bed Stuy, while a microcosm of New York mixes inside discovering a whole new culinary world.