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January 31, 2022
On a recent November evening in Louisville, Kentucky, Jack Beguedou is busy with final preparations. In just two hours, guests will arrive for the second-ever AFROFUSION dinner. A lot of prep has gone into picking the best West African food, Bourbon and cocktail pairings, and this is the first chance the crew at the city’s Afrokanza Lounge has had to execute the plan. But it’ll be worth it because all this hard work is for a concept Beguedou is excited to share.
According to Beguedou, AFROFUSION creates a cross-cultural experience by combining American Whiskey and West African food. For him, the goal is to open diners’ minds and palates to a whole new level of flavors. And as Beguedou says, nothing quite opens the mind to a new experience like a good glass of Bourbon.
In Louisville, as the preparations continue, Beguedou says the AFROFUSION’s debut just a few weeks earlier in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, was simpler. There, the city’s large and well-established community of African immigrants made it easy to find ingredients unique to the cuisine of Togo, Beguedou’s West African homeland. Lacking some key foodstuffs in Louisville forces him to adjust on the fly.
“It took me just 10 days to organize [an AFROFUSION] dinner in Omaha because I know that community well,” says Beguedou. “In Louisville, I had to research and find chefs, and then find a restaurant location that would work. It’s been a little nerve-wracking making the details come together.”
But things have come together, thanks in part to some help from Heaven Hill Distillery. As the sponsor of AFROFUSION, Heaven Hill provided the Bourbon and whiskey for the evening, as well as some ideas on what whiskeys would pair best with the meal. That’s why on tonight’s drink menu, guests will be lucky enough to sample three cocktails and a straight pour, each featuring Heaven Hill’s American Whiskeys. And if any questions come up, there’s also a Heaven Hill brand ambassador on hand to answer.
“It works in Omaha for my friends and others, so, yeah, I think it’ll work here because people already love Bourbon,” Beguedou says. He’s confident his guests this evening will love the Togolese food, “But will they like the food and the whiskey together? I’m thinking, ‘How can they not?’”
Since coming to the U.S. 17 years ago, Beguedou has experimented with combining West African foods with spirits. As this hobby grew into a passion, he found that his palate for French wine enhanced his Bourbon selections. And when it came to pairing drinks with his home-cooked meals, Togolese moonshine led to some creative whiskey cocktail creations.
While not a trained chef, Beguedou’s friends loved his paired meals and told him he was onto something special. That encouragement gave life to Beguedou’s side hustle as the self-branded Hood Sommelier.
“People said, ‘You’re like a sommelier but for whiskey,’” Beguedou says, recalling his friends’ appreciation of his knowledge of spirits. “At some point I decided I would become the Hood Sommelier because I wanted to teach the average person from all walks of life (any hood) to enjoy their spirit like an expert, and also bring food into it.”
A CELEBRATION MARKED BY FOOD AND DRINK
As the guests find their seats in Louisville, Beguedou asks if any have eaten African food. When several hands go up, he asks if anyone in the group has sipped Bourbon with an African meal. When no hands go up, Beguedou grins.
In a deep and brassy voice, he says, “Then, tonight will be an adventure for you!”
The event begins with a “wezon” cocktail, Togolese for “welcome” cocktail. Beguedou says these batched cocktails serve the dual purpose of “opening up the palate and opening up the stomach to make it ready for food.”
TRY THE WEZON COCKTAIL
Combine all ingredients into a shaker, except prosecco, and shake vigorously. Fine strain into coup or Champagne flute. Top with prosecco. Garnish with a piece of candied ginger.
Try a Twist From Lynn House
Swap the turmeric syrup for 2 oz. of Hibiscus tea. You’ll need some additional sweetness in this version, so be sure to add 1 oz. of simple syrup, as well.
The drink menu came together based on discussions between Beguedou, Deion Bass, an Omaha-based mixologist, and Lynn House, Heaven Hill Distillery’s national spirits specialist and portfolio mixologist. A veteran restaurant bartender who learned to pair food and cocktails by working with chefs, House helped brainstorm the meal’s drink pairings using Beguedou’s menu and vision as a flavor roadmap.
“I wanted to know his ingredients so I could recommend my own,” House says. Wezon cocktails, she continues, are “traditionally lighter, so that’s why we picked Larceny. But it’s also why ginger and sparkling wine work well. They bring bright flavors and a little acid.”
House says the final cocktail is a vibrant combination of ginger-infused Larceny Bourbon, turmeric syrup, lemon juice and prosecco.
To help House envision a Togolese party, Beguedou described its dinner segment as multiple small portions of foods matched with drinks. Each course sets up subsequent courses by preparing diners’ palates for progressively different flavors and textures.
“In the middle of the meal, West Africans traditionally drink high-proof palm wine,” House begins. “So, to make something similarly bold—something to stand up to the menu’s main dishes—that’s why we went with Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon Old Fashioned with Hella Chili Bitters and Bitter Truth Creole Bitters.”
TRY THE OLD FASHIONED
In a mixing glass, add the two bitters, simple syrup, Elijah Craig Small Batch and ice. Stir until well chilled. Fill a rocks glass with fresh ice, strain the cocktail over ice and garnish with a slice of orange.
Try a Twist From Lynn House
Swap your simple syrup for rice syrup. To make the syrup, mix together equal parts Rice Dream and Cane Sugar. For every cup, add 1 cinnamon stick. Simmer the ingredients together until it reduces by about a third. Allow to cool. Keep cinnamon sticks in syrup until ready to mix. The syrup will appear cloudy, but as the syrup cools, it will clarify.
The ahome cocktail, signifying the meal’s end, is made from Rittenhouse Rye, guava and plantain nectars, lemon juice and mango puree. It’s vividly fruity and abundantly aromatic. While the rye isn’t evident on the nose, it shows up on the palate as a dark undercurrent carrying the other flavors. Aiming to keep the drink from becoming overly sweet, House says the rye’s spice and the lemon’s edge to do battle with the drink’s heavy guava notes.
“The acid is in there just to give it some more bite, something to make it bold as it finishes,” House says. “The drink is meant to tell a story in its progression of flavors.”
ON THE MENU
Back at the dinner, Beguedou describes each course for guests. First, there’s a starter of avocado and shrimp. Next up, chicken with plantains, jollof rice and suya. And for dessert, degué couscous.
Raw onions garnishing multiple dishes are essential to the experience, Beguedou says, because they soften the blow from bright and tongue-warming spices used throughout the menu. But when strips of suya—marinated and grilled slices of beef brisket—are served with an invigorating sauce, Beguedou encourages guests to heighten the pleasant burn with a sip of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon.
When he says, “Your palate is awakened now, right?” some in the group applaud the pleasant tingling sensation, which is cooling rather than hot. “It’s not what you expected, which is what makes it so good,” Beguedou says.
By day, Beguedou runs a pair of insurance agencies. Eager to grow his business, he followed a business mentor’s advice to “network more by playing golf. That’s how he closed a lot of deals,” Beguedou says. “The problem was my mentor loved golfing, and I’m terrible at it. But I kept playing.”
Beguedou says that after he “dug up a grave’s worth of grass and dirt” on the course, the mentor tweaked his advice: Pick a hobby that you can align with what you do for a living.
As a longtime Scotch whiskey fan, Beguedou started bringing bottles to share on the golf course. During a round, he’d sip some and offer it to the rest of his foursome. Despite his lousy golf game, he was turning strangers into friends one sip at a time. When he told his mentor that spirits helped increase his connections, the mentor raised the bar.
“He told me, ‘If whiskey’s your thing, then bring something special for them,’” Beguedou recalls.
The bottles he shared got better, and the results were new friends and new business. But before long, friends and colleagues began inquiring about Bourbon. Knowing little about America’s native spirit—but eager to keep “them calling me the ‘Whiskey Guy’”—he watched YouTube videos to learn more. In no time he was making Bourbon cocktails, sharing them with friends—and more importantly, pairing them with West African foods.
Impressed by his creations, his dinner guests encouraged him to consider converting his pairings hobby into a business. When the pandemic hit in 2020, he had time to think it through and plan.
Busy with his insurance agencies, Beguedou didn’t need another job. He was also content being the “Whiskey Guy” and not hankering for a new persona. Yet the seeds of a pairings concept were planted and began flowering into new ideas. Even better, merely pairing food and whiskey was no longer the only idea. He envisioned the business creating opportunities to make cultural impacts.
“Where I’m from in West Africa, every crazy conversation always starts with some libation, and I liked doing that with people,” he says. “But then it became as much about the food and the whiskey, and just getting people together.”
THERE’S DINNER AND THERE’S DANCING
In West Africa, jollof rice is a popular staple. While recipes vary from region-to-region, and even from kitchen-to-kitchen, they generally include a mix of rice, tomatoes, bell peppers, tomato paste, scotch bonnet peppers, onions, salt and other spices. Its mouthfeel is surprisingly silken, not sticky. That the rice isn’t highly seasoned is intentional, Beguedou says; its subtler qualities emerge without battling other flavors on the plate.
The menu’s subtleties continue with dessert: degué couscous, which is cooked with milk, sugar and vanilla. Afrokanza Lounge chef Dorisa Babot, an immigrant from Cameroon, adds yogurt to soften the texture further. Served cool, the dish is refreshing.
While looking for the perfect place to host AFROFUSION in Louisville, Beguedou considered a few options. A major requirement was to find a chef well-versed in West African flavors, and someone that was equally as excited to bring his concept to life. Beguedou found that in Badot.
While this is Babot’s first paired dinner for work, she says matching food and drink is part of Cameroon’s culinary culture.
“At home we eat and drink [alcohol] with what we eat,” Babot says. “Putting those together opens up the pathway to understanding food.”
She says preparing Beguedou’s menu was challenging but thrilling, and that in the weeks since AFROFUSION, its influence remains on Afrokanza Lounge’s menu. “It was magic to do that meal!” she says. “And we’ve been doing those kinds of combos ever since; simple things like one taste of suya or chicken with a taste of whiskey.”
Heather Wibbles, a local mixologist and writer known as The Cocktail Contessa, says her curiosity with pairing West African food and whiskey compelled her to attend AFROFUSION. And while she loved the mélange of food and drink, she says Beguedou’s storytelling and seeing the people who prepared the meal made it memorable.
“Just having an event centered on African traditions and having it organized by people of color was amazing on its own,” Wibbles says. She believes AFROFUSION could create the larger impact of “amplifying non-white voices in the Bourbon community. The dinner proved just how Bourbon transcends nationalities.”
As the meal ends, Beguedou announces that a genuine Togolese party always concludes with dancing. And as the music starts, Peggy Noe Stevens, joins the action. Stevens met Beguedou by chance just weeks before the dinner, and as he shared his vision for AFROFUSION, she was impressed by his passion and intrigued by the cross-cultural food and drink pairings. Sensing her enthusiasm, he invited her to dinner.
“From the moment I went inside [the Afrokanza Lounge] that night, I heard the music and picked up on the energy in the room,” Stevens recalls. “Everything he told me about the AFROFUSION experience was happening in that room, and it was an exciting place to be.”
AFROFUSION 3 IN D.C.
With two AFROFUSION events behind him, Beguedou is now planning a third event for early 2022 in Washington, D.C. Similar to Omaha, D.C.’s African immigrant community is large and diverse and will provide a wide range of resources from which to draw. Still, much planning lies ahead as Beguedou ponders the lessons learned from the prior two AFROFUSIONs.
“We still have to find chefs and a venue, but that will happen,” he says. “I’ve also got more experience now, which will help.”
And without the sponsorship of Heaven Hill Distillery, Beguedou says putting on any AFROFUSION dinners would have been a challenge. “I’m so grateful for that support” Beguedou says. “They’ve been a great partner.”
While executing any AFROFUSION event is difficult for his team, when it’s all said and done, Beguedou wants to keep the concept simple for diners.
“When African people meet American people—that’s what I feel AFROFUSION is about, bringing those two cultures together,” Beguedou says. “To get them to try food they might not try, especially with a spirit or cocktail they might not normally drink. That’s really my goal and I know we’re accomplishing that.”
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