Essential Cooking: Baobob Fare co-owner, ‘Chopped’ winner Hamissi Mamba shares his culinary journey

Mamba talks to Ann Delisi and Chef James Rigato about his inspiring life journey from Burundi to Detroit.

Hamissi Mamba of Baobob Fare stands with Ann Delisi and James Rigato in the lobby of WDET, radio station.

Hamissi Mamba of Baobob Fare stands with Ann Delisi and James Rigato.

The Essential Cooking podcast returns for an all-new season!

This week, Baobab Fare chef and co-owner — and recent winner of Food Network’s Chopped cooking competition — Hamissi Mamba talks to Ann Delisi and Chef James Rigato about his inspiring life journey from Burundi to Detroit. Mamba describes how he and his wife Nadia Nijimbere overcame the odds to start a family and thriving business in an unfamiliar culture.

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In this episode:

  • Hamissi Mamba tells the story of how he won Chopped on The Food Network
  • The origin story of Baobob Fare
  • Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba’s culinary journey from Burundi to Detroit
  • Launching campaign to build a kitchen in Freedom House Detroit
  • Bringing Burundian coffee to Detroit to support Burundian farmers

Growing up in Burundi

Mamba grew up in Burundi eating his mother’s cooking. His mother had a restaurant, and Mamba would help her prep at night so her food would be sold in the market the next day.

“After school in the evening, I would go back to the market, get the dishes and the money, and come back home,” says Mamba.

Food security was always the main priority of the family’s business. Mamba’s mother providing her family with at least one daily meal set an example for him.

“In Burundi, food has a special place. You wake up in the morning and you think about what you’re going to eat, how you’re going to get it.”

Getting settled in Detroit

Mamba took those lessons and seven years in business and marketing to Detroit as an asylum seeker. His wife Nadia Nijimbere worked in nonprofits that helped children enroll in school in Burundi. Because Nijimbere was challenging powerful and dangerous people, she was forced to flee Burundi, eventually coming to Freedom House in Detroit, a nonprofit organization that provided shelter and food.

Soon after arriving, she learned she was pregnant with twins.

Mamba was still in Burundi but was able to relocate to Detroit two years later.

Mamba and Nadia left Freedom House and won the $50,000 Hatch Detroit business competition in 2017, helping them create East African restaurant Baobob Fare in New Center.

“There was no African food around here so I saw it was an opportunity,” says Mamba.

Baobob Fare currently employs 38 people.

Champion on Chopped

Mamba didn’t expect to win Chopped.

The business owner went in thinking he would raise the profile of Baobob Fare and his homeland of Burundi.

With ten minutes left in the competition, Mamba was running out of time and nursing a cut on his hand. He had never cooked scallops or ostrich before, but he followed his culinary instincts and served his scallops with a lemon butter sauce.

“Under pressure, you don’t know what you’re cooking. I didn’t read or hear what they’re saying. I saw the meat, I was very confident it was beef. I started massaging and marinating the beef,” recalls Mamba.

Fifteen minutes in, he realized it was ostrich, but he took a taste test and was pleased with the results.

“I think this is what I learned from the competition — every food is similar, it depends how you approach it.”

Paying it forward

Mamba is paying it forward to the organization that helped him settle in Detroit by donating his Chopped winnings of $10,000 to Freedom House Detroit.

Mamba says there are 75 residents at Freedom House Detroit now but the facility does not have a kitchen. His goal is to help the organization’s campaign to build a kitchen as an amenity for asylum seekers who are hoping to stabilize their lives.

The campaign has currently raised roughly $40,000.

Mamba is confident that Detroiters care and will step up to help the residents Freedom House Detroit — just like how the organization helped him and Nijimbere years before.

“I know that we will do it, and we will do it together.”

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  • David Leins
    David Leins is a Podcast Coordinator and Producer at WDET. He also oversees the StoryMakers program. When he isn't making radio and podcasts, David is probably on a hike somewhere marveling at the trees.