West African cuisine with Ithaca state of mind

Alex Obinatu, a chef from West Africa, serves his signature dishes during the Finger Lakes Pottery Tour in May.
Alex Obinatu, a chef from West Africa, serves his signature dishes during the Finger Lakes Pottery Tour in May.
Photo by Sarah Barden
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Summer is a great time to drink. And if you’re drinking, sooner or later you’re going to want something to eat. Usually, this means you’re reaching for standard American bar food: chicken wings, burgers, nachos and so on. But this summer, patrons at The Westy – a neighborhood hang in Ithaca’s West End – have a more unique option: West African cuisine from Hot Spot Grill.

Hot Spot Grill is the passion project of Ithaca transplant Alex Obinatu. Since May of 2017, Obinatu has set up his tent at events of all sizes, from an afternoon at Hopshire to the multi-day Finger Lakes Wine Festival. This is his first regular gig: a weekly summer residency at the Westy’s beer garden, serving customers every Thursday through Saturday.

The menu consists of a variety of West African dishes, from jollof rice (rice cooked in tomatoes and spices) to oxtail served with rice and beans. Of the eight regular entrees, four are vegetarian – to ensure he has something for everyone. The most popular dish are fried plantains, which comes as a surprise to Obinatu because they are so simple. With that said, he did speculate that their popularity may be since he cuts and fries them so they are fresh, and though he doesn’t add sugar, they stay sweet all on their own.

It’s not only sugar that he doesn’t add to his dishes.

“When I started this, I try to cook the way I see them eat it here,” Obinatu explained. “But I now found out they add a lot to it. I didn’t like it at all. So, I now cook it the basic way I know how to cook it, which is more natural and less preservative in it. And I like it better because it’s healthier. It actually tastes much better.”

Born in Nigeria, Obinatu grew up cooking.

“As a kid I was made to - after doing my chores - be in the kitchen, three days a week,” he said. “It became easy, convenient. Actually, it became like some form of therapy for me. It helped me relax.”

Eight years ago, he moved to the United States and began traveling all across the country to explore new places and new careers. While his degree is in economics, he has held many occupations – the most recent being a risk analyst position at Morgan Stanley.

Despite his extensive travels, Obinatu was surprised to discover Ithaca. He first arrived in Ithaca to visit a childhood friend and was immediately struck by the natural beauty and peacefulness he found.

“I felt well. I felt alive,” he said. “I was able to sleep well. For years, I wasn’t able to sleep well because there was so much noise. [In Ithaca,] you woke up in the morning to just birds and nature. It was that that drove me to stay.”

In December of 2014, Obinatu decided to move to Ithaca – having finally found a place he wanted to put down new roots.

“But coming to Ithaca wasn’t that easy, to start,” he recalled. “Especially because almost everyone walking around has 20 degrees and some Ph.D., so, of course, they’re not going to give [a job] to you. I thought about many things and this was one of the difficult things to do, but I just thought ‘well what is it that I enjoy and could I make something off of it?’”

His assessment that catering would be difficult turned out to be accurate, as the first few years were accompanied by a steep learning curve. Learning to predict the demands of a crowd, estimating food quantities for any given event and waiting out bad weather are typical challenges for food vendors – and Obinatu had to learn on the go.

Earlier this year, he had decided to take a break from the catering business and pursue a more reliable income stream at Morgan Stanley. But then, The Westy called. The spacious beer garden has a food truck – more akin to a carnival food cart – tucked in a back corner. On summer nights, the picnic tables are full of locals enjoying drafts and mixed drinks, and while there are abundant food options nearby, many take advantage of the convenience of the food truck.

The offer was for a weekly residency, nightly every Thursday through Saturday – an unusual degree of consistency for a pop-up food vendor. After careful consideration, Obinatu agreed and quit his other job to make the most of the opportunity.

Hot Spot Grill’s slogan is “West African Cuisine with an Ithaca State of Mind.” Obinatu explained that the slogan is meant to reflect the tenacity required to make a living somewhere.

“If you really are here and you want to succeed, you have to have that,” he said. “Your state of mind has to change. You have to be able to find something for yourself.”

He remarked that, during his travels, while he stayed employed, he was never driven to stay until he arrived in Ithaca.

“To me, all these places that I went, it never happened until I came here,” he said.

Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.

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