Starting a restaurant may be the last thing on anyone’s mind after obtaining a law degree and an MBA. For Beatrice Ajaero, it was part of her plan all along.
“I knew I was very passionate about the food space from a very early age, and my earliest preparation was around baking,” Ajaero says. However, as a child of immigrant parents from Nigeria, Ajaero was encouraged to build a foundation outside of the culinary arts first. “My parents were very clear that they wanted me to be prepared in a wide range of skill sets before entering into the culinary realm,” she says. Ajaero honored her parents’ wishes and attended law school, then business school at Bard, where her capstone project centered around adding more West African food options in college towns.
It was the start of an idea that would take root—and part of Ajaero’s bigger dream to showcase West African food to the masses. Last year, that dream was fully realized with Nneji, a West African restaurant comfortably nestled in Astoria’s multicultural fabric. “We were looking for a way to tell the story of West African food,” she says. “We wanted to have a place that could speak to preserving our heritage and become a gathering point for the community.”
Community and heritage are two words Ajaero holds dear—and is embodied in the very name of her restaurant. Nneji is the middle name of her youngest sister and means “mother to hold onto” which translates to always being connected to one’s maternal lineage in Igbo, a language and ethnic group in Southeast Nigeria. The idea of umunne, or never forgetting where one comes from, is at the center of Nneji. “Umunne is the place where you can do no wrong,” Ajaero says. “Your umunne has to carry you. If you've ever committed some kind of calamity and you're looking for a place to hold you—no matter where you are in the world—umunne has to open their doors to you and embrace you.”
This spirit of radical acceptance and belonging is channeled in Nneji’s cozy space, with warm terracotta walls adorned with African mudcloth artwork in earthy tones, and vibrantly colored Ankara fabrics used as decor. West African pantry staples, such as garri, mingle with Grecian baklava and Italian biscotti stocked in a pastry counter, a nod to some of the longstanding communities that have cemented their place in Astoria. Ajaero’s food—like her goat meat stew, punctuated with a ginger and Scotch bonnet pepper blend and accompanied with a choice of fonio, among other grains—are equally comforting, hearty, and warm. “I'm channeling a lot of my mother's and aunt's recipes, particularly from my umunne where every gathering point was around food,” Ajaero says. “We really look to share that with every guest that comes through our doors.”
Nneji proudly serves as the physical manifestation of umunne, a tribute to kinship, and the food traditions she cherished in childhood for all to enjoy—and a classroom for customers curious about West Africa’s myriad cuisines. “My hope is to have West African food become a very commonly sought after choice for dining,” she says. “It’s something that we're doing one guest at a time, and one conversation at a time.”
Ajaero doesn’t want to limit the conversations to customers, either—she wants them to catalyze connections between Nneji and some of Astoria’s ethnic enclaves. “It's our hope that in engaging and examining these crossroads, we hear about recipes that come from a wide range of food traditions that cross into ours,” Ajaero says, citing the Greek and Serbian communities as examples.
With Nneji, Ajaero now counts herself as part of Astoria’s multicultural tapestry. And, despite being the neighborhood’s first West African restaurant, Ajaero knows she’s part of a unique legacy—and a testament to Astoria’s history. “We’re one of many links in the character of Astoria,” Ajaero says. “Queens is the world’s corner.”