The importance of family was ingrained into Isa Clark at a young age. Growing up in Nigeria (his family lived in Port Harcourt before moving to the Niger Delta region), his father welcomed their extended family into their home. That’s a lot of mouths to feed – happily. Isa credits his upbringing as foundational to his work now as the Executive Chef of Clark’s Special Kitchen, a catering business offering Nigerian Fusion cuisine in Kalamazoo.
“We believe so much in family and we have a bunch of kids and food is always an essential part of family,” says Clark. “We had 14 kids and two professional chefs— people came every day. My father was someone who was very cultural and religious, and he believed that people who come should be fed… my father had a strict policy that you had to be busy doing something, even if you had nothing to do, so I spent a lot of time in the kitchen.”
That dedication to family is also what drove Clark to Kalamazoo. In 2017, when his daughter was born in the United States but his relationship with her mother didn’t work out, he decided to stay close to her. He left a successful financial services business back in Nigeria. In the States, he found work driving and coordinating services for multiple rideshare and food delivery companies. It wasn’t his passion though. What he did find fulfilling was cooking the foods of his home country and sharing his culture with his new community. Clark started out offering dinners during the holidays. That led to him gaining clients for bigger events which then inspired his current dream: to own a catering business and a food truck. He’s found help to navigate the requirements to do so through Can-Do Kalamazoo, a small business incubator organization. He recently graduated from the 16-week Can-Do Camp, a program that helps guide entrepreneurs, with a deliberate focus on equitability and accessibility. The next milestone for Clark is raising enough money through a crowdfunded micro-loan campaign through Kiva, which would support a kitchen space, hiring an employee, and paying for a business license and insurance.
When NowKalamazoo visited with Clark, he prepared his rendition of Egusi Stew with fufu, a dish that’s trending around the world. Its complex, habanero-infused and hearty tomato-based sauce is bolstered with numerous proteins and can be as unique as the person making it. Originating in Nigeria, it includes the ground melon seed Egusi, the namesake of this recipe, which imparts a satisfying nutty flavor and thickens the stew substantially. The palm oil-infused tomato sauce and spices are then supplemented with meat protein, vegetarian options like mushrooms or vegetables like chopped spinach, kale, root vegetables, and more. And although optional for those who are vegetarian (and Clark adds that he is always offering different options for everyone), one of the most unique ingredients are crayfish, adding a seafood flavor and salty taste, reminiscent of a New Orleans Etouffee. The stew we tasted was fortified with smoked turkey, tripe, and a separate dish of Beef Egusi with a seasoned ribeye steak. The sauce had such an unusual profile yet was composed of very familiar ingredients with the flair of Nigerian fundamentals like egusi, and palm oil and crayfish, hence the fusion of cuisines.
Clark’s version of fufu – a slightly sour and spongy dough that is used much like bread to scoop up the stew – is a break from tradition, using pounded yam flour instead of traditional cassava root. There are other options too – ground rice, or oatmeal for a healthier version – but the pounded yam flour saves a lot of time.
Clark prepares the stew free form with an obvious deep comfort level with all of the ingredients. He explains that his cuisine is “Nigerian Fusion” because “we don’t really cook just like this,” referring to having browned a beautifully marbled and seasoned ribeye steak for a Beef Egusi. “That’s really more of an American thing.”
“I try to introduce this to my clients that are not Nigerians to make the food, to familiarize the food. I’m cooking it in a way that is going to be appealing, suitable to you,” he said. “I just want to share a common value with people about how we are all similar to each other in (the) way that we eat almost the same kind of ingredients, but we just make them in different ways.”
Did you struggle to earn money that was equal to your earnings in Nigeria when you moved to the U.S.?
Isa Clark: Considering the exchange rate, it was almost similar earnings, but the process just differs a lot because I had an existing business with employees and my job was mostly administrative but over here in the United States, it is a lot of hustle and bustle which was something I had to adapt to. As a business owner in Nigeria, I had created and brought simple financial services to the ordinary man and woman who could not read nor write and also to those that lacked means of transportation to the big banks and the business was expanding with about 30 employees. But getting to America I had to learn to walk, speak and read all over again!
Restaurants provide opportunities for people to work hard and succeed — a path that immigrants frequently find once they arrive in the United States.
Isa Clark: The kitchen is often where hunger issues are solved, and immigrants are often hungry for a new beginning so finding them in restaurants shouldn’t be a surprise! Technically all we need to push through each day is a bit of food and sometimes what an immigrant needs is a bit of food to push through another day. Food shared is love shared and the best people are those that are able to share their food with others. Imagine what Jesus did feeding everyone with a token of fish and bread… I heard the people were happy! And I believe food does bring people together so I think your statement is hypothetically correct for a good restaurant is a good place to be … food speaks only one language and that’s “Eat It!”
How have you benefited most from Can-Do Kalamazoo?
Isa Clark: They brought me closer to the people who could help me make my dream come true. It gave me more insight into the reasons why small businesses fail, like if they weren’t dealing with the right people. It gave me insight that every business is designed to be successful if you follow the right steps in the right order. They’ve been very helpful and can help a new business or an existing one. For me it was, how can I raise $60 to 70K to finance a food truck? Even if I raise that much money, how do I find a return on my investment?
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