House of Seasoning Grill founders Mathieu and Raissa. Photo courtesy of Mathieu Niamke.
When dining in an ethnic restaurant or visiting another culture, I find the food and mealtimes to be a window into those cultures. Mealtimes bring people together to share their histories and to find commonalities. Everyone must eat, but how and what people eat can define them. For those of us who are fascinated by different cultures, love ethnic food, and seek out restaurants serving authentic food made by the people who are from that culture, there’s a new restaurant in Pittsfield doing exactly that. Mathieu Niamke and Doumbia Raissa, known as Raissa, opened the House of Seasoning Grill employing Raissa’s recipes from the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire (aka Ivory Coast). While Raissa’s food is delicious and provides a glimpse into her culture, it’s their story I find to be equally interesting.
Mathieu and Raissa were both raised in Abidjan, the coastal city of over six million people and economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire. They met in Abidjan at a mutual friend’s party when Raissa was working in a restaurant and Mathieu owned a bar in the city. It wasn’t long before they became a couple and decided to emigrate to the United States.
The first places they lived in the United States were in the New York metropolitan area, which they found to be very expensive and not very safe. Once they started a family, they began searching for an affordable area where they could best raise their children. A friend suggested they consider Pittsfield where he’d been living, as he found it affordable, a good place to raise children, and with a strong support group from West Africa. They followed their friend’s advice, and in November 2017, they moved to Pittsfield, where Raissa found a job at the Brien Center, a place where many members of the local community from West Africa were employed, while Mathieu found employment in the dining room of the Kripalu Center.
Soon after they settled into Pittsfield, they discovered there were no African restaurants to be found in the Berkshires, with the closest being in Albany to the west and South Hadley to the east. Because their dream was to start a restaurant together, they began exploring what spaces were available. Their dream came true in November 2021 when they signed a lease for the former Friends Grille at 117 Seymour Street in Pittsfield, a block from the Berkshire Medical Center campus. However, as they began working on the restaurant, their dream took on aspects of a nightmare. They found the restaurant needed far more work to satisfy the various building and health department inspections required beyond the cosmetic makeover and thorough cleaning, which they thought was all they needed to do to make it their own. The work required thousands of dollars and almost a year to complete, however they persevered and opened the doors to the House of Seasoning Grill in September of this year. As Raissa explained, “We did it all because it was my dream, I love to cook.”
When I asked them about how they came up with the name for the restaurant, Mathieu explained, “We use many of the same ingredients [as other restaurants]. We use the same chicken, the same pork, the difference is the seasoning—the seasoning changes everything.” When I asked Raissa what those seasons may be, she laughed, “It’s a secret!” It was a nice try on my part, anyway.
I asked Raissa if the food she cooks for the restaurant is the same sort of food she’d cook in a home kitchen in Abidjan. Raissa explained, “I cook some of the same things as I did in Abidjan, we serve fufu which we eat almost every day there, but some of it would be too unusual for here. That is why we call my food African American.” She went on to explain traditional West African dishes on her menu such as Peanut Butter Soup and Tchep au Poulet, a festive West African dish of grilled chicken with a tomato-based sauce, eggplant, cabbage, and carrots. Mathieu stressed this about their food, “We only use the finest ingredients, no frozen meat, everything is fresh. Everything! You can taste the difference between frozen and fresh.”
When you walk into their restaurant, you’ll find it to be bright, clean, and open, yet cozy. It has a pleasant rustic feel to it with exposed wooden beams, red painted walls, and furnished with wood and cast-iron furniture. An inviting bar stretches across the back wall. The whole vibe is casual and welcoming with Mathieu greeting everyone as an exceptionally friendly host. The food is delicious, and the portions are generous. While parking can sometimes be difficult for many Pittsfield restaurants in and around the center of the city, it’s not an issue here with the restaurant’s large parking lot which is one of the main reasons they were attracted to this space.
The restaurant’s space is reminiscent of Mission Restaurant, which recently went out of business and was a celebrated venue for music for years. So, naturally, I asked Mathieu about presenting music in the restaurant. He explained what they’ve been missing is liquor and entertainment licensing. The application process for both is torturous and complicated for anyone, but especially difficult for someone from another culture. Mathieu’s battle with the application process should be remedied soon after he discovered help from the Berkshire Black Economic Council. Mathieu is eager to present live music once licensing is approved.
Some of the dishes on the menu may be unfamiliar to many Americans, but that’s the main reasons I find the restaurant interesting. I mentioned the Peanut Butter Soup earlier which is cooked with chicken and served with fufu or rice. Peanuts are used extensively in West African cuisine as they’re an inexpensive source of protein. Peanut Butter Soup is really a very creamy and saucy vehicle for fufu or rice with some chicken added. Fufu is made from boiled cassava (a tuber similar to yams) which is pounded into a paste and formed into balls. Fufu is meant to be a swallow food which means small pieces are to be pulled off the ball with a thumb and finger pinch and dipped into Peanut Butter Soup or other soup or stew and swallowed whole without chewing. Swallowing the starchy fufu whole is meant to create a greater sense of fullness. No one’s judging, though, so eat it however you feel most comfortable.
Another cassava-based side dish is attieke (aka cassava cous cous), which is made from finely grated and fermented cassava. It has a similar consistency as the cous cous we’re most familiar with, but chewier with a slight tang from the fermentation. Because attieke is made with cassava, it’s gluten free. Attieke is considered the national food of Ivory Coast and there’s even been a push within the country to give it the same protected status as Champagne.
One of the dishes familiar to Americans that Raissa is most proud of is her chicken wings—and for good reason, because they’re delicious! I’ve never been one to spend much time seeking out chicken wings, but hers are exceptional. I think Raissa better have plenty ready for the Super Bowl!
The House of Seasoning Grill is open Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 am to 9:30 pm, as well as Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 pm to 9:30 pm Meals can be enjoyed either in their dining rooms or ordered for takeaway through their website. For more information and menus visit their website.