Togolese Cuisine with New York Flavor: Woézõ Lands in Brooklyn

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Yovo, or an avocado salad with red onions, corn and cilantro. Credit: Facebook/Woézõ

Mitch Bloom’s dream is to make his business the next Chipotle.

A lofty ambition, perhaps, but this visionary Peace Corps alum is up for the challenge. Bloom started Togolese pop-up Woézõ (pronounced way-zo) in January, and the business has already outgrown Smorgasburg and will soon move into a permanent bar space in Bed-Stuy.

A self-proclaimed nutrition and fitness geek, Mitch has always been fascinated by the best ways to fuel the human body. His adventurous spirit led him to carry out projects in family planning and sanitation while in the Peace Corps in Togo, but a practical curiosity propelled him through a unique master’s program at NYU to combine Health Communication, Food Studies and Public Service Management. As a longtime disciple of Marion Nestle’s simple yet sound nutrition teachings, Mitch wanted to find the best way to create lasting change toward public health. He found his ultimate inspiration through George Weld’s (executive chef and owner of Egg) passion in the power and joy of the service industry, and Woézõ was born.

Mitch is committed to voting with his fork. “You can aggressively purchase from systems that deserve the money on the individual level,” he says, “or you can multiply your power by one hundred or one thousand on the wholesale level with a business.” Woézõ aims for this by highlighting local ingredients and providing meatless menus to strive for the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Woézõ also adheres to the Peace Corps mission to continue to share the culture of the country where one has worked.

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La pâte, a cornerstone of Togolese cuisine. Credit: Facebook/Woézõ

While many of Woézõ’s ingredients may be local, the technique is anything but; the majority of the recipes come from a charismatic and influential midwife named Esther, who was a sort of mother figure to Mitch in Togo.

Woézõ’s take on la pâte, a Togolese essential, is through a “comfort bowl,” which features local corn flour polenta with okra sauce, affectionately known as “snot sauce.” The bowl comes with a choice of spiced stewed meat from Sugar Hill Farm and/or a medley local mushrooms. The okra sauce is also a nod to traditional Togolese food, which he makes by sweating local onions with ginger powder and black pepper, and then adding pureed okra.

Additionally, Woézõ offers two side dishes as a spin on classic cookery: koliko yam fries with a ginger gazpacho dipping sauce (think sautéed ginger, garlic and onion in a tomato puree of heirlooms from Hudson Valley harvest), as well as yovo avocado salad.

The avocado salad is a play on yovo, the word for “foreigner” in Togo. A neighbor in Mitch’s village once offered a Belgian guest a plate of four diced avocados as a meal, which led him to wonder, “how might a yovo offer avocados to a guest?” Mitch knew he also wanted to feature raw red onion on the menu, and found that both ingredients paired well with corn and cilantro — voilà, the dish was born.

To quench your thirst, Woézõ also offers bissap, a Hudson Valley maple-sweetened organic hibiscus tea. It’s one of two major street beverages in Togo — the other being limeade served frozen or chilled in tightly wound plastic bags.

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Bissap, or a Hudson Valley maple-sweetened organic hibiscus tea. Credit: Facebook/Woézõ

Their Smorgasburg season is closed for now, but you will soon be able to find this New York take on West African food on the corner of Malcolm X and MacDonough Street in Bed-Stuy at Casablanca Cocktail Lounge (a new project from the artist-designer who built Bed-Vyne Brew). Perhaps the best part of this partnership, Mitch declares, is that this new location will allow Woézõ to be in a position to assertively purchase a greater variety of local ingredients without compromising Togolese flavor.

Now that’s a way to eat locally and think globally.

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