Story and photos by Annelies Zijderveld
Monifa Dayo is not new to pivoting. In 2016, the chef realized she had grown weary of the steep physical demands and endless manual labor of commercial restaurant work. Stepping away, she opened Sur Place, a work space inside a private residence, where she could host events like community dinners and parties. She also found opportunities in consulting, recipe development, and food styling.
But on March 16, when California’s shelter-in-place order took effect, all of her projects disappeared. It was at that moment that Dayo realized she’d been over this hurdle once before, at a time when it was easier to have a clear head about it.
“It took me having a moment with myself and I had to really let go of my ego around it,” says Dayo. “I had to backpedal and tell myself there was no shame in making the pivot.”
For her new venture, Dayo looked back to her roots. She had started cooking at an early age with her Gambian stepmother, her first chef-mentor, and later ran a catering company. She cooked for a time at Tartine Manufactory and at Lalime’s, and she worked overseas at La Piscine in Marseille, France, and at Heaven in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali.
Honed through these diverse experiences, Dayo’s style combines Gambian flavors with the California approach to cooking with what’s in season. For instance, a recent Sur Place menu featured peanut stew with lamb and chermoula, tangy beets tousled with orange and avocado, potato salad with crunchy lettuce hearts and dill, and tender charred eggplant tossed in lemon tahini sauce. This is fine dining that travels well.
Informing followers by email and social media video of her new pick-up/ delivery model, she found a healthy response. Clients bought gift certificates. A few bought five.
“I have to rely on people choosing me because of what I’m doing—because they want to support the chef and what she’s offering,” says Dayo.
Meanwhile, she’s found herself wrestling with the concerns of essential workers on the front lines, seeing the grocery store checkers, janitors, and security guards as people who are all worthy of respect.
“Any person providing a food service is putting themselves and their families at risk for you. A heightened level of compassion and patience is required for them, for us,” says Dayo.
So now Dayo thinks about serving her food with a side of social justice, stoking conversation about food insecurity, and remembering those in food deserts, especially marginalized peoples. She partnered with the African-American Art & Culture Complex on a “pay-it-forward” program, in which donated meals reach a population that the AAACC is no longer able to serve after shutting their doors. The meals are 100% funded by the community and started as one of Dayo’s clients first donated enough money for her to distribute 10 meals, and then gave another blanket donation, later suggesting broadening it so others could contribute too.
“Every week, I have an opportunity to feed elders, single mothers, activists (including some Black Panthers), and it’s such an honor to pay it forward like that,” said Dayo.