West African Brings Her Native Food to Milwaukee
A scholarship brought Cameroon native Yollande Tchouapi Deacon here in 2001. Her business, Afro Fusion Cuisine, grew out of her desire to recreated the flavors and foods she grew up with.
Milwaukee County Winter Farmers’ Market is one of the places she sells her sauces and spices.
Her sister Pierre helps, doling out tiny spoonfuls of chutney and jerk sauce. The siblings wear traditional dresses, called Bubba, and head wraps - creating a rich profusion of color. They hope to transport “spirits”, if even for a moment, to the home of their youth.
“We are from Cameroon, West Africa. And she’s married to a Jamaican – so that’s where the fusion comes from,” Pierre says.
Pierre and Yollande began introducing their fused African recipes to Midwestern pallets at summer markets, and customers wanted more. Pierre says catering followed. Now their spice blends and sauces sell in local grocery stores.
“There’s this idea that African food is hard to make – this is true – it is intricate, it has a lot of steps to it , but we can make it easy and you can use local produce from local farmers, and it’s healthy – it’s good for you,” Pierre says.
Their laughter rings through the market air.
Yollande invites me to visit the kitchen space she rents in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. The infectious joy and passion fill the air here too.
The Afro Fusion mastermind is cooking up mango chutney - 40 gallons of ingredients simmer in a giant vat. She spent two hours just peeling the mangos. Now it’s time to add fresh ginger.
“My sauces are a painting, it’s a piece of art. Every single sauce that I put out is a flavor or combination of flavors that I want people to experience. You’re not just ingesting food. I mean food is the most intimate experience that we have. You’re getting up close and personal with nature, or at least the fruit of nature – ginger, mango, fresh mango,” she says.
Yollande and her six siblings grew up harvesting from their garden. Building meals from fresh ingredients came as naturally as breathing. “We had our mini farm just across the street, and everybody had a plot of land, and the big plot of land was two hours away. I never went to a grocery store until I came to the U.S., I had no concept of what a grocery store is,” she says.
Yollande says cooking carries her back to summers with her grandmother.
“We were at the farm in the mountains west of Cameroon, and I remember sitting in very small kitchen in the hut by the fireplace and we were stirring and talking about how she grew up, my grandma. The neighbors, the old grandmas would actually all get into the same kitchen and talk. Now that I’m talking to you, I remember. The way they would actually tell each other that they were home, they would whistle like…and it meant something! It means, hey I’m here,” Yollande says.
Yet her passion extends beyond the kitchen.
A scholarship enabled her to earn a graduate degree in business, and another jumpstarted her sister’s medical aspirations. So Yollande now sends Afro Fusion profits back to West Africa, to pay for children to attend school.
Last year, she delivered 80 scholarships. She says, in Cameroon, many families struggle, and if they have to make tough choices, they often send the boys to school, not the girls.
“I wake up in the morning and I want to do this. For the kids who are waiting for me to send some money to buy chalk and paint the wall, and for my customer who has a gluten allergy. It’s more than the financial reward, it’s the emotional, even the spiritual reward because I’m connected,” Yollande says.
She’s also juggling - Yollande works fulltime at a Fortune 500 company and raises her young daughter. Sister Pierre just finished pre-med at Marquette and, one day, plans to split her time practicing medicine in the U.S. and Cameroon.
Right now though, it’s time for Yollande to pour her mountain of mangos into the chutney concoction.
“When you find that value and that passion, guess what? You’re not going to feel it’s a chore, because you have so much to tell and to do,” she says.