BUSINESS MONDAY: The House of Seasoning Grill, from Abidjan to Pittsfield

Mathieu and Raissa, founders of House of Seasoning Grill. Photo courtesy of Mathieu Niamke.

When I dine at an ethnic restaurant or visit another culture, I find the food and meals to be a window into those cultures. Mealtimes bring people together to share their stories and find commonalities. Everyone should eat, but how and what people eat can define them. For those of us who are fascinated by different cultures, love ethnic cuisine, and seek restaurants that serve authentic dishes made by people from that culture, there’s a new restaurant in Pittsfield that does just that. Mathieu Niamke and Doumbia Raissa, known as Raissa, opened the House of Seasoning Grill using Raissa’s recipes from the West African country of Ivory Coast (aka Ivory Coast) . While Raissa’s food is delicious and gives insight into her culture, it’s their story that I find equally interesting.

House of Seasoning dining room and bar. Photo courtesy of Mathieu Niamke.

Mathieu and Raïssa both grew up in Abidjan, a coastal city of more than six million inhabitants and the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire. They met in Abidjan at a party of mutual friends when Raïssa worked in a restaurant and Mathieu owned a bar in the city. It wasn’t long before they got together and decided to emigrate to the United States.

The first places they lived in the United States were in the New York metropolitan area, which they found very expensive and insecure. Once they started a family, they started looking for an affordable neighborhood where they could better raise their children. A friend suggested they consider Pittsfield where he had lived, as he found it affordable, a good place to raise children and with a strong West African support group. They took their friend’s advice and in November 2017 moved to Pittsfield, where Raissa found employment at the Brien Centre, a place where many members of the local West African community worked, while that Mathieu found a job in the dining room of the Kripalu Centre.

Raissa in the kitchen of House of Seasoning. The restaurant uses Raissa’s recipes from the West African country of Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of Mathieu Niamke.

Shortly after settling in Pittsfield, they discovered that there were no African restaurants in the Berkshires, the closest being in Albany to the west and South Hadley to the east. Because their dream was to start a restaurant together, they started exploring the available spaces. Their dream came true in November 2021 when they signed a lease for the former Friends Grille at 117 Seymour Street in Pittsfield, one block from the Berkshire Medical Center campus. However, when they started working on the restaurant, their dream turned into a nightmare. They found that the restaurant needed a lot more work to satisfy the various building inspections and health services required beyond the cosmetic renovation and deep cleaning, which they thought was all they had. need to own it. The renovations took thousands of dollars and nearly a year, but they persevered and opened the doors to the House of Seasoning Grill in September of this year. As Raissa explained, “We did it all because it was my dream, I love to cook.”

When I asked them how they came up with the name of the restaurant, Mathieu explained to me: “We use many of the same ingredients [as other restaurants]. We use the same chicken, the same pork, the difference is the seasoning, the seasoning changes everything. When I asked Raissa what those seasonings could be, she laughed, “It’s a secret!” It was a nice try on my part, anyway.

I asked Raissa if the food she cooks for the restaurant is the same kind of food she would cook in a home kitchen in Abidjan. Raissa explained: “I cook some of the same things as in Abidjan, we serve fufu which we eat almost every day there, but some of it would be too unusual for here. That’s why we call my food African American. She then explained the traditional West African dishes on her menu such as peanut butter soup and Tchep au Poulet, a festive West African dish consisting of grilled chicken with a sauce based on tomatoes, aubergines, cabbage and carrots. Mathieu emphasized this about their food: “We only use the best ingredients, no frozen meat, everything is fresh. All! You can taste the difference between frozen and fresh.

When you walk into their restaurant you will find it bright, clean and open, yet cosy. It has a pleasant rustic feel with exposed beams, red painted walls, and wood and cast iron furniture. An inviting bar spans the far wall. The general atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming with Mathieu greeting everyone as an exceptionally friendly host. The food is delicious, and the portions are generous. While parking can sometimes be difficult for many Pittsfield restaurants in and around downtown, it’s not an issue here with the restaurant’s ample parking lot which is one of the main reasons they were attracted through this space.

Peanut butter soup is really a very creamy and sassy vehicle for fufu or rice with added chicken. Photo courtesy of Mathieu Niamke.

The restaurant space is reminiscent of the Mission Restaurant, which recently closed and was a famous music venue for years. So, naturally, I asked Mathieu to present music at the restaurant. He explained that what they lacked was liquor and entertainment licenses. The application process for both is torturous and complicated for everyone, but especially difficult for someone from another culture. Mathieu’s battle with the application process is expected to be resolved soon after he discovers help from the Berkshire Black Economic Council. Mathieu is looking forward to performing live music once the license is approved.

Some items on the menu may not be familiar to many Americans, but that’s the main reason I find the restaurant interesting. I mentioned peanut butter soup earlier which is cooked with chicken and served with fufu or rice. Peanuts are widely used in West African cooking as they are an inexpensive source of protein. Peanut butter soup is really a very creamy and sassy vehicle for fufu or rice with added chicken. Fufu is made from boiled cassava (a yam-like tuber) which is pounded into a paste and shaped into balls. Fufu is meant to be a swallowable food, which means that small pieces should be removed from the ball with a pinch of the thumb and fingers and dipped into peanut butter soup or other soup or stew and swallowed whole without chewing. Swallowing starchy fufu whole is meant to create a greater feeling of fullness. No one is judging, though, so eat it however you feel most comfortable.

Another cassava side dish is attieke (aka cassava couscous), which is made from finely grated and fermented cassava. It has a consistency similar to the couscous we know best, but chewier with a slight flavor from fermentation. Because attieke is made with cassava, it is gluten-free. Attieke is considered the national food of the Ivory Coast and there has even been a push in the country to give it the same protected status as champagne.

One of the familiar American dishes that Raissa is most proud of is her chicken wings, and for good reason, because they are delicious! I’ve never been one to spend a lot of time looking for chicken wings, but hers are exceptional. I think Raissa better have plenty for the Super Bowl!

The House of Seasoning Grill is open Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Meals can be enjoyed either in their dining rooms or ordered to take out via their website. For more information and menus, visit their website.

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