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Omaha Magazine

Cooking His World: A World Away From Home

Aug 29, 2022 04:31PM ● By Josefina Loza
Jamil Bah-Traore of house of bah

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Perhaps it was a boyhood dream to become a chef: someday, summoning spices and flavors; plating with purpose; preparing the finest in food offerings.

It was an idea he'd peppered in conversations for far too long. It was time to make a move, Jamil Bah-Traore thought. Anyone who knows Bah-Traore knows he can throw down in the kitchen. He earned his title as a kid helping his mother, Sahadat, in the kitchen of their Togolese home feeding his large family. 

Born of Malí descent, Bah-Traore was raised in the African country of Togo. At a young age, the sweet and savory smells from his mother’s kitchen inspired Bah-Traore to learn the culinary art. In his 40-some years, he moved to the United States, earned a business degree, and worked several blue-collar and office jobs. Yet, his interest in food hadn’t diminished. 

Making his boyhood dream a reality meant defying stereotypes, advocating for equal representation, fusing gastronomic innovation and tradition, and cooking up a culinary education that brought awareness to the merriment of food and culture.

“If you know your roots, you’ll understand life better,” Bah-Traore said during an hour-long interview at Okra African Grill, near 72nd and Jones streets. He often frequents African restaurants in his effort to show solidarity and support. 

Knowing oneself is a sentiment that his wife, Aicha, echoed when Bah-Traore contemplated applying for Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts in 2012. 

Bah-Traore comes from a seasoned lineage of professional chefs. It’s in his blood. It’s a tradition that his great-grandfather passed down to all his sons, and his grandfather Adamou Akpo shared with this mother who, taught him.

Great-grandfather Idriss Akpo was the Chief of the Kotokoli in Lomé, Togo. He was born in the Akpo Royal family in Kadamabara in Central Togo. He was a young man when he went to study German and distinguish himself. As an adult, he worked as a chauffeur, aid, and cook. After the French took over at the end of World War I, Bah-Traore said his great-grandfather worked at Chemin de Fer du Togo (the national railway) and remained as a cook for French colonialists.

Under his great-grandfather’s influence, all his sons learned to cook in what was a heavily patriarchal society. 

“The promise was made to teach all his male descendants the art of cooking,” Bah-Traore said. “His blood is what guides my hands. I realize now that his spirit is why I cannot give up cooking no matter how many degrees and managerial roles I took to stay away from the craft.”

Bah-Traore worked nights as a taxi driver and attended classes at Metro Community College’s Institute of Culinary Arts during the day. The then-young family did what they could to make certain Bah-Traore was seeing his dream to completion.

It's clear that Bah-Traore is on track to make the world a better place through his boyhood passion. He continues to push his way past the Eurocentric traditions absorbed by many in culinary school. He is reflecting Africa and its diaspora in his kitchen, using techniques from Malia and Togo at the House of Bah, his catering company which features upscale African cuisine.

The House of Bah held his first Afro-fusion year-end gala in 2015. He was frequently featured at the former House of Loom, a lounge, dance club, and event venue hybrid located at the entrance of Little Italy. 

His vision to shed new and diverse light over the richness of African culinary heritage has led him to found nonprofit Eat ’N’ Talk Africa. The organization educates the metro area about African culture while providing healthy and innovative food–centered on a fusion of emergent African cuisines and modern techniques.

“Chef Jamil Bah is passionate about the promotion of the African Culinary Heritage. This is evident is his menu offerings of amazing and succulent Afro-fusion dishes. House of Bah is definitely worth a try if you haven’t already,” said Fidele Mienso, a Midlands African Chamber Board member who continually uses the House of Bah catering services for Chamber events. 

Bah-Traore opened his eyes to realize that he wasn’t dreaming anymore. He’s hosted fine dining popups at the Switch, Blackstone, Flat Iron, Millwork Commons and competed and won a $10,000 pitch competition hosted by the Midlands African Chamber. He sits on the board of directors for City Sprouts and the African Restaurant Association. 

"Chef Jamil is an incredible chef. Not only because his meals are so delicious and unique, but because he is incredibly generous with his knowledge about ingredients, dishes, and cultural cuisine. His food is tasty, fresh, local, and spirited," said Luper Akough, a local entrepreneur who has attended his pop-up events. 

“Omaha is a foodie town. The city is open and welcoming. We need to give African heritage its place. We must teach the next generation,” Bah-Traore said. 

That summer day, his eldest son sat next to him at the Okra African Grill restaurant, nodding in agreement. Bah-Traore’s legacy continues. 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann


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