Image: Chef Eskender Aseged founded Radio Africa & Kitchen in 2007.
For over a decade, Eskender Aseged worked for award-winning chefs like Jeremiah Tower, Joyce Goldstein, and Nancy Oakes in the fast-paced world of fine dining. His cooking talents quickly grew in their demanding kitchen environments, where he often prepped meals from American, Mediterranean, and Jewish cuisines. But when on the job, he never had the opportunity to incorporate his North African roots into his craft.
“And I realized that there was something missing between the chefs…and the public,” said Aseged.
Aseged yearned to bring it back to basics. However, he still wanted to experiment with cuisines that personally influenced him at different stages in his life. He started cooking with Ethiopian, Moroccan, Egyptian, and Sudanese meals at home during the early 2000s. And by 2004, he began hosting “pop-ups” out of his house. Friends visited to sample culinary creations that would set the foundation for Radio Africa & Kitchen to finally open its first restaurant location eight years later.
Inspired by Aseged’s childhood memories of crowding around a radio with friends to listen to music and sporting events, the restaurant blends the communalistic spirit of North Africa with some Westernized touches. The chicken jambalaya is lighter than Southern versions of the same dish—even with generous servings of kale and saffron rice—and it still leaves you full. The lamb is tender and served medium rare with a fresh array of couscous and vegetables. Plus, the Hibiscus Lemonade refrains from touting an overly artificial taste popularized in U.S. beverages, surprising San Francisco foodies with its underrated tartness.
After its opening, Aseged’s restaurant ironically became a hit on nearly everything except the radio. The local business received features from food publications like Eater SF and SF Gate. Plus, TV personality (and walking Internet meme) Guy Fieri gave his blessing to Radio Africa & Kitchen in an episode of ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ on the Food Network.
The Fieri effect on restaurants is a hotly debated topic. Fans may argue—especially in the spirit of irrational Fieri fandom—that’s how Aseged also navigated Radio Africa & Kitchen through the coronavirus pandemic. But the founder took advantage of his restaurant’s healthy menu after San Francisco announced its shelter in place order on March 31. And it’s allowed him to hang on during a time when other restaurants are shutting down forever.
“We’ve been really busy since April,” said Aseged. “We were considered an essential restaurant…providing good nutrition now.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 90 percent of Radio Africa & Kitchen’s customer transactions have been for catering experiences. The restaurant has fulfilled anywhere from 50 to 400 orders per day for senior citizens and frontline workers.
Aseged’s focus has shifted from the customer experience in the restaurant to maintaining the efficiency of his operations. Some moments, he’s thinking like a production line assembler setting ambitious targets for Radio Africa’s order output. In others, he’s obsessing over item packaging like a corporate marketing manager.
Either way, when all is said and done, Aseged is eager to innovate beyond to-go orders, proving Radio Africa Kitchen is much more than just a ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ feature by exploring opportunities beyond the traditional dine-in experience.