Chef Howsoon “H.O.” Cham, the son of diplomats, came to the US from Gambia in 1987 to study international affairs at Bethany College in West Virginia. (The person who literally stamped his visa was Linda Thomas-Greenfield, now the US ambassador to the United Nations.) He began working in restaurants during college, eventually taking on chef roles at noted Southern spots such as Georgia Brown’s and Vidalia before opening his own establishments, including Latin-Caribbean Red Ginger in Georgetown and Lincoln Park Kitchen & Wine Bar in Capitol Hill.
“I’ve worked in all kinds of restaurants,” says Cham, who’s taken a break from the industry over the last couple years to travel around the world. “I have never cooked food from my hometown.” That will change with debut of Moi Moi, an American restaurant “with a West African accent” opening Saturday, January 15 in downtown DC.
Moi Moi gets its name from a mashed bean cake with seafood, which Cham describes as a “West African tamale.” “It’s something I ate as as a kid. It’s a street food in Gambia. I wanted to bring food that I grew up eating,” Cham says. The version on his menu uses fresh mackerel.
There are plenty of historical culinary ties between West Africa and the American South given the flavors and dishes brought to the US by enslaved people in the 1700s. Cham recalls one time he made groundnut soup for acclaimed Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf, who he worked for at Georgia Brown’s. “Cindy was like, ‘How do you know this? This is what I eat back home in Charleston.’ I’m like, ‘Cindy, this is what we eat everyday at home.’ We call it groundnut soup, they call it peanut butter soup,” Cham recalls.
Some dishes on the menu read more Southern: fried green tomatoes with charred okra relish or chicken livers with potlikker demi-glace. Others lean West African: thieboudienne, a traditional Senegalese jollof rice dish with stuffed porgy, or pepper soup with oxtail and goat. Meanwhile, many are Cham’s own combinations—think suya-rubbed steak or berbere-spiced lamb chops with cassava leaf-mint pesto. For dessert, find brioche coconut bread pudding or millet “chackry,” a popular pudding-like Gambian dessert.
The cocktails—which span from margaritas to boulevardiers—are named after Cham’s family members as well as important people and places across Africa. Other nods to his roots include murals of an African village on the walls of the 100-seat white-cloth dining room, which includes a lounge area and seven-seat bar.
Moi Moi does not plan to take reservations, but Cham hopes a blast from his past will stop by: “How ironic would it be if Linda Greenfield would walk down here from the White House with Biden?”
Moi Moi. 1627 K St., NW. 202-303-0125.