Nigerian Food and Fashion Came Together at This Dinner Party in Brooklyn

Nigerian Food and Fashion Came Together at This Dinner Party in Brooklyn

In 2010, Busayo Olupona was working as a corporate finance lawyer in New York City when she began making dresses from traditional African textiles, both as a creative outlet and as a way to connect with her heritage. Olupona, who was born in Boston, lived in Ile-Ife, a city in the southwest of Nigeria, until she was 11, when her family moved to Davis, Calif., for her father’s job teaching African Religion at the University of California, Davis. In 2013, she decided to turn her hobby into a business, launching Busayo, a collection of full-skirted dresses, voluminous pants and puff-sleeved tops, all produced in the country where she spent her childhood.

Known for her love of bright color combinations — think raspberry with tangerine, eggplant with sky blue — Olupona, 43, now travels to the Nigerian cities Abeokuta, Lagos and Osogbo several times a year to work with local artisans. Over the past decade, her designs have been spotted on celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o and Gwyneth Paltrow, and picked up by luxury retailers including Neiman Marcus and Moda Operandi. When she’s home in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Olupona jumps at any opportunity to host a gathering. “Nigerians love a good party,” she says, recalling childhood memories of her parents and their friends dancing to the jùjú music by Shina Peters and King Sunny Ade, dressed up in Nigerian lace and head wraps. “We celebrate everything.”

On a chilly Monday evening this past March, Olupona had two happy occasions to toast: the 10th anniversary of her fashion label as well as her recent award from the 15 Percent Pledge, a nonprofit that supports Black-owned brands. Rather than hosting at home, she decided to treat her friends and supporters of her company to dinner at the Department of Culture, a Nigerian restaurant in Bedford-Stuyvesant that was just named a James Beard finalist for Best New Restaurant. As the sun set, 15 guests — including the actresses Adepero Oduye and Zainab Jah; the playwright Tracey Scott Wilson; the visual artist Daàpo Reo; and Yemi Amu, the founder of the Brooklyn hydroponic farm Oko — showed up to sample the chef Ayo Balogun’s inventive take on North-Central Nigerian cuisine.

Before the meal began, Olupona placed a bottle of Ogogoro — or palm liquor — in the center of the table. Nearly impossible to buy in the States, it was a souvenir from her most recent trip to Nigeria. As the guests sipped from miniature glasses, sighing with satisfaction, Balogun started things off with his version of Nigerian pepper soup, using snapper as a base rather than the traditional snails. Next came asaro: a porridge of sweet white yams, tomatoes, red bell peppers, habanero chiles and onions, to which Balogun added smoked shrimp and crayfish. The meal’s main event was another staple of Nigerian home cooking: pounded yam and egusi soup. While the two are typically served in separate dishes, Balogun is poured the egusi — a stew of ground melon seeds, spinach, chicken or beef stock, ground crayfish, onions and peppers — over the pounded yam, resulting in a dish that requires both a fork and a spoon. (Nigerians typically eat this with their hands, rolling up little balls of the yam, indenting them with their thumbs, and filling them with a bit of soup.) Dessert was dodo (fried plantains) with vanilla ice cream, a childhood favorite of Balogun’s.

Olupona was happy to see the table full of used plates and crumpled napkins after the meal: “Generally, if things look too orderly at the end of a party, I worry,” she said. “I want some chaos! Empty food trays, empty cups everywhere, people are delirious with joy.” Not ready to call it a night, the designer and at least half of the guests continued the party, walking a couple of blocks up Nostrand Avenue to Paul’s, a neighborhood bar that Olupona appreciates for its “low-key, non-pretentious” feel . Below are her tips for entertaining with Nigerian flair.

“Nigerian food is quite labor intensive, so I like to order catering when I host at home,” says Olupona. For larger groups, her go-to is Divine Flavored, the mobile African food kitchen with outposts in New York and Philadelphia. “For drinks I go to Astor Wines. They are great at helping you curate a nice wine list within your budget.”

“The company is the most important element,” says Olupona. “I always think about personalities, existing relationships or people that I want to facilitate a deeper connection between.” At the Dept. of Culture, Amu and Oduye immediately expressed their admiration for each other’s work, while Reo regaled the rest of the table with observations on Yoruba storytelling styles.

A restaurant may provide the glassware and utensils, but that doesn’t preclude a personal touch. Olupona decorated the Dept of Culture’s table with multi-patterned indigo cloths and bright yellow napkins from her home collection, which matched the paper menus she’d designed for the occasion.