by Cindy Knoebel
The idea came to Nelson Achiri Geh after his Cameroonian cooking received rave reviews from friends.
Achiri, as he likes to be called, recalls cooking up a batch of beignets (a lightly fried pastry) for Anne-Marie Debbane, who had visited him at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. Later, he did the same for friends in Oakland. "That's when one of them told me, 'Hey, you should have your own food truck!'" he recalls.
Achiri took the suggestion seriously. After all, he had experience: in Cameroon, he used to work and cook at his sister's restaurant, which served Cameroonian street food. He also imported and sold popcorn he purchased in Dubai.
But cooking was the last thing on Achiri's mind when he arrived at the US border in July, 2017 after fleeing political persecution in Cameroon. After requesting asylum, he then spent the next two years being transferred from one immigration detention center to another. He was finally released on October 28th on a $25,000 bond plus ankle bracelet.
On his first day out of immigrant prison, Anne-Marie took him to a Nigerian restaurant (the closest thing to Cameroonian cuisine) and, she says, "he was in heaven." She added, "He picked up some ingredients from the adjacent market to cook at home. What somewhat surprised me was to see how much he loved cooking. And I really lucked out because his food was great! The first meal he made for me was Egusi soup (delicious) and then came the beignets haricots (or beans and beignets), which is popular street food in Cameroon. It was so good and addictive!"
Achiri enrolled in an online course and quickly earned a certificate in food handling. But he just as quickly learned that starting his own food prep business in California would require more than a certificate - a lot more. He originally envisioned buying a food truck, but he estimates that at around $35,000, the cost would be far more than he could afford.
So his current plan is to purchase a van, outfit it with kitchen equipment and dish out Cameroonian specialties at farmer's markets in Oakland, San Jose and other places.
Even this plan will require a big investment. First there's the van itself. Then there's everything he'll need to cook and serve, including a stove, heaters, coolers, pots and pans. He'll also to purchase a stand and a tent to set up at the markets. And last but not least, he'll need a license, which will cost an additional $1,000. All told, he estimates he needs $10,000 to start his business, and to raise funds, he's established a GoFundMe campaign.
I asked Achiri what he likes to cook. "Beignets," he responds immediately. "And lots of vegetables. It will probably be all vegetarian food." I also asked him what kind of spices Cameroonians use in their cooking, and he cited garlic, ginger, hot peppers, and curry.
He's not sure what he'll call his business. "Maybe I'll use my name - Nelson's?" But he's open to suggestions.
And he's counting the days - and dollars - until he'll be able to start his new business. Meanwhile, his application for asylum is still pending.
Talking about Cameroonian food made me want to try some. So, here's a recipe provided by Achiri:
Author's note: Please consider contributing to Achiri's GoFundMe campaign so he can purchase the equipment and supplies required for his new business! You can read more about Achiri in this article from July, 2019.