Authentic Southern African cuisine is not easy to come by in the United States. Originally from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Zweli Williams could not find flavors of her homeland after relocating to the States to study hospitality and tourism at North Carolina Central University 24 years ago. She and her husband Leonardo Williams ended up opening the country’s first Bantu restaurant, Zweli’s, in Durham, NC. It quickly became a local favorite, receiving rave reviews as well as numerous accolades.
Now, with the couple’s third and latest restaurant, Ekhaya, Chef Zweli Williams continues to share a taste of the Motherland’s south with Bantu tapas and handcrafted specialty drinks.
“My inspiration for Zweli's Ekhaya was to take African cuisine to the next level, in both food, cocktails and ambiance. All the five senses were carefully curated to represent the old and new Africa," Williams says. "I wanted to redefine African cuisine in a high-level experience while paying homage to the Bantu people.”
A truly unique and one-of-a-kind experience, Williams sought inspiration for the dishes only from within. The result was an unparalleled menu, the likes of which can not be found anywhere else.
“I wasn’t thinking of what another restaurant was doing, or how they were doing it. I look at culinary as a true art or canvas I get to paint on and use my creativity," explains the chef. "This has brought about a unique and interesting, delicious product.”
The restaurant’s decor is equally special, all having been handmade by African villagers. Williams scoured the buzzing markets of Bulawayo and hand-selected what is now Ekhaya’s elegant bar walls, ceilings, art and beautiful plating with an aim to make its ambiance as memorable as the food. She describes Bantu food as simple yet unforgettable.
“It is nurturing to the soul, organic. Traditionally, my great-grands grew all their food and raised all their livestock. Everything my grandparents ate came from their gardens," says Williams. "They had ways of taking readily available grains and greens, being resourceful and making meals out of what they had.”
Dovi ne Murivo, for example, which translates to peanut butter braised greens, is a rich and nutritious healthy vegan dish sourced completely from a backyard. One of Ekhaya’s signature dishes is Dovi rice bombs in pepper sauce, a simple yet elegant dish bursting with flavor. Another is Amarula ice cream, a rich, creamy chocolate dessert made from the South African Amarula cream liqueur.
Today, as an acclaimed chef, Williams pays homage to her origins. Her passion for hospitality and the culinary arts goes back to her childhood, when she began learning and honing her cooking skills.
“From a young age, whenever we would have guests in my family’s household, I felt the need to be in the kitchen, carefully preparing and presenting food that would wow my parents' guests," she explains. "I’ve always associated good times and hospitality with good food.”