In New York City's Rockaway Beach, a Story of Love, Faith and African Beignets
Babajide Alao and Pesy Sikyala are the fashion models turned urban farmers at the helm of The Cradle, New York City’s only farm-to-table West African restaurant.
Babajide Alao didn’t start having doubts about his dream of opening a food cart serving West African food in his beloved Rockaway Beach community until he found himself thousands of miles away from home – with the aforementioned cart in his possession – but no easy way to get it back to New York.
“I flew to Oregon [to buy it], but driving back was not my intention. I was going to package it and have it shipped. But once I got to the shipping company, they said, ‘Your cart is fragile.’ And no one wanted to take that liability or that risk because of how delicate the cart is,” Alao, 26, told Inside Edition Digital. He knew that the cart was fragile, but it was the only one he’d found that was aligned with his vision for the project, which is why he traveled all the way to Oregon to purchase it.
But he wasn’t prepared for the suggestion the person who sold him the cart gave him to get it to New York: “[He] was like ‘Get a U-Haul truck and drive it back.’”
Despite being nervous, Alao decided to go for it. Not only would he be responsible for getting a large, delicate item across the country, he had to make the close to 3,000-mile, four-day journey alone, something his girlfriend and business partner, Pesy Sikyala, 25, didn’t feel good about.
“When he called me to tell me the story, I freaked out a little bit…it was in the middle of your finals,” Sikyala said. “He's pulling over to do exams, to submit his homework while driving, and I'm at home, and I can't sleep because he's in the middle of the country driving. So it was a test of our faith. Those four days were definitely a test of our faith, of how badly do we want this dream, this goal, that we are accomplishing?”
Ultimately, they were undeterred, though at times overwhelmed. “Everything is a trial,” Alao admitted. “[But] I believe when you go through that trial, then it tells you if you're really determined to do what you want to do, or what you had in your mind to do. I thought, ‘Should I take the food cart back? Take it back, take it back.’”
Once he made it safely back to New York with the cart, he and Sikyala had even more crosses to bear in order to get their business, The Cradle, off the ground, first as a mobile food truck, then as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and most recently as an urban farm. Being first time business owners, they have had to learn regulations and file permits that were unfamiliar and costly – a process made infinitely more difficult by pandemic-related closures.
“We do not have thousands of thousands of dollars sitting in our bank account,” Sikyala asserted. “We had to work with what we had at that moment and just our knowledge. So we decided to work on the restaurant ourselves. We were here night and day cleaning, tearing things apart, painting, removing things. It was like, ‘What do we want at the restaurant? What is this? We can't call someone to come paint it. Let's go to Home Depot, let's get paint. Let's start painting it ourselves.’” But the pair could not have done it completely alone, Sikyala said, noting they have relied on friends and neighbors every step of the way. That circle has only grown more vibrant since The Cradle launched.
“We have a friend who’s a painter and she really put her time in to help us paint the restaurant and get it ready,” Sikyala gushed, also noting that The Cradle has been equipped largely with donations from friends in the restaurant industry. Once opened, they immediately prioritized building community around the space. “We're here to listen…we'll just have open conversations, which leads to friendships. Next thing you know, [it’s] like, ‘Oh our buddy's driving by. Oh, Hey, what's up?’” Then those new friends bring their friends. And that, the couple believes, is how customer loyalty is born and bred.
“No matter how great or bad your product is, people will always, always remember you as a person before they remember your product. I think that's very important for us, for people to know who we are as individuals, our background. We talk about the stuff we do outside of our restaurant, outside of our food,” Sikyala said.
One of the things Alao and Sikyala do outside of the restaurant is fashion modeling, which is how they met in 2014, during New York Fashion Week. Both still work regularly in the industry; Sikyala is signed to Wilhelmina Models and Alao is with System Agency. And soon, they’ll have their hands even more full: they are expecting their first baby in just a few weeks.
Getting to know Alao and Sikyala has certainly been vital to keeping customers engaged and wanting to return to The Cradle, but to be clear: it’s the food that draws people to the restaurant. Offering a first-of-its-kind experience on the Rockaway Beach peninsula has been the crux of enticing customers, who have turned out in volume over the past three summers to try the couple’s interpretation of West African food. Many of their customers are fellow expats from the region – Alao is from Lagos, Nigeria and Sikyala is from Kinshasa, Congo – and for them, the menu is familiar and comforting.
“This place hits home in the stomach,” one patron could be heard saying to another outside the restaurant last fall. “I'm telling you!”
But for all the enthusiasm some customers bring to The Cradle, their flavors are unfamiliar to just as many, which has been a challenge. “It's not easy to get customers to try something they've never tried before, something new. And when it comes to West African food or African food in general, there's a lot of stereotypes behind it…is it too spicy? Is it too oily? That was my frustration,” Sikyala admitted. So, they asked themselves, “How can we present this to get people to try or at least look and see, what's that over there? What's going on? How should our [countries] be represented through our food?”
The menu features Nigerian dishes like egusi soup, a stew made with bitter leaf and ground African melon seeds, as well as dishes that are more widely West African, like joloff rice bowls, which they make with a vegan base and farm fresh produce, in the hopes of appealing to as many palates and diets as possible. Sikyala brings her Congolese influence in through The Cradle’s puff puffs – a sweet fried dough snack reminiscent of beignets – which are called mikate in the Congo. For Sikyala, mikate has long been something that connects her to people.
“My grandma made [them] almost every single day,” she remembered. And when she and her family first moved to New York from Kinshasa, it seemed natural that she would continue the tradition. “When we first moved in, we were having guests over to get to know the neighborhood and we wanted something [to serve]. So, I asked my mom, ‘Why don't we just make mikate?’ So many memories came back from making it with my grandma that ever since then I went back to my roots and started making it every single week.”
It’s been that desire to make the foods that remind them of home in the ways that feel most authentic to their own experiences that has inspired Alao and Sikyala to push themselves more, and ultimately further away from the glamorous world that brought them together. Two summers ago, they were handed the reins to their own plot of land adjacent to Edgemere Farm, an urban farm located just three miles away from the restaurant. Edgemere lives on a 1/2-acre abandoned city-owned lot on the Rockaway peninsula, a New York City neighborhood that was ravaged during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and is home to a federally-mandated food desert.
The farm has given Alao and Sikyala an opportunity to provide their restaurant with farm-to-table produce – making The Cradle the only such African restaurant in New York City – which has long been vital to their long-term vision. “The main goal of the restaurant is to be 100% farm-to-table. We are working on that every single day and also learning from every process because life is a learning process and is a learning curve at every turn,” Alao said. “Knowing where my food comes from is really important [to me]. Similar to living back at home in Nigeria, we had a small garden in the backyard. It was so normal until I came to the United States and started living in the apartment building and not having access to farms or being able to grow our own food. Farm-to-table really brings me closer to home and closer to how my grandparents did it in Nigeria.”
The implications of the wider community’s lack of access to fresh food isn’t lost on Sikyala, who is using the farm as a point of education, too. “Driving [through a] Black community there’s a high chance you’ll run into a lot of fast food establishments,” she pointed out. “Most of [them] have never been to a farm before or know where their foods are coming from.”
With that ethos driving her, Sikyala created The Cradle’s Farming 101 program, which is designed to give local children and their families hands-on opportunities to learn the ins and outs of growing, harvesting and composting. “In Africa, we grew up growing our own fruits and vegetables,” she explained. “That alone is just an important aspect of the value of life.”
That sense of responsibility to the community continues to drive their sense of purpose and move the couple to action.
“The Cradle, it was something of a spiritual calling. It's when you feel like you're destined to do something more than what you're currently doing,” Alao reflected. As far as the future goes, he believes the sky's the limit, beaming thinking about the possibilities. “Every single day, I'm inspired. I'm like, ‘Wow. This would be great with this. This would be great with that.’”
And while he acknowledges that they aren’t quite ready to bring every one of those visions to life right away, he trusts in the power of faith to get them there. “We walk by faith and not by sight. Because being able to see something does not really mean that's the end goal,” he said. “When you walk by faith, it's like, you don't see it but you believe. [But] once that belief is there, then it becomes something tangible.”
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