Big Brain Finalist 2012: Esther Mbaikambey

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You submitted nominations for awards given to the Valley's emerging creatives and the results are in. Introducing our Big Brain 2012 Finalists.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award awards announcement and celebration on April 7Chow Bella and Jackalope Ranch will introduce the finalists.

Up today: Esther Mbaikambey

Whether chef Esther Mbaikambey is serving up creations such as her Caribbean jerk chicken or the Nigerian thick soup, Eugusi, she often responds to her grateful guests with the phrase, "It's my pleasure."

The words are spoken slowly, always with a smile, and in Mbaikambey's thick African accent. Her mannerisms and movements suggest a calmness not typically found in the restaurant business, especially from first-time chef/owners like Mbaikambey.

"People are surprised that I am so calm," she says, "but I'm a hard worker -- I don't like to give up; I like to push through."

Mbaikambey's years of quiet determination have eventually led to the opening of her restaurant, Fu-Fu Cuisine. The fun-to-say name may mean little to the average American diner, but the moniker, referring to the starchy food staple of Africa and the Caribbean (where it is sometimes described as mofongo), speaks to the restaurant's offerings of cuisine from both areas of the globe. For Mbaikambey, it represents the food from her past, but for Valley diners, it is a unique culinary journey and unlike any other in the Valley.

Mbaikambey grew up in Nigeria. The oldest of six children, she took to cooking almost immediately, watching her mother prepare meals for the family. After attending high school in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Mbaikambey came to America, where she spent two years in Atlanta before coming to the Valley to attend Phoenix College. Without giving herself any time off, Mbaikambey finished college in three years and with three degrees in Business, Food Service Administration, and Culinary Arts - this in addition to several hours of volunteer work. She said the idea for her own restaurant came at various parties in college, where her friends would talk about her flair for cooking and tell her what dishes she should put on her imaginary menu.

But new restaurants don't just materialize out of ideas and goodwill. They take money and planning. And once Mbaikambey settled on her dream, she set about to make it happen, in her deliberate manner, by working at Applebee's for a staggering 12 years. For nine of them, and to nourish her creative culinary skills, she also ran a personal catering business.

Finally, late last year, Mbaikambey opened Fu-Fu Cuisine on the city's west side. Unconcerned about adventurous diners making the journey from more well-known restaurant hubs such as Scottsdale and Central Phoenix, she says she simply wanted to reach her cuisine's culinary bases of diaspora living in the Valley and offer her unique concept to curious newcomers.

Fu-Fu Cuisine's well-prepared Caribbean fare - such as meat pies, jerk chicken, and soup dumplings -- may be most familiar to the Western palate, but it is Mbaikambey's flair for food served in her home of Nigeria and throughout the African continent that is the most unusual and a joy to experience. There is the exotic yassa chicken topped with a sauté of dijon mustard, peanut oil, green olives, onions, and bell peppers; fried, doughnut-like dumplings called pof-pofs; and the popular thickened Nigerian soup called Eugusi, made from the seeds of the same name. Of course, most of Mbaikambey's African dishes are accompanied by fu-fu, a staple of the continent. White and sticky, it is eaten with the hands and used as a utensil for scooping up seasoned stews and soups.

In addition to her guests, Mbaikambey feeds her family from the food she makes at Fu-Fu. She says her husband, Martial, who is working on an engineering degree and sometimes helps at the restaurant, and her three children, ages 3, 6, and 8, enjoy most everything she brings home, with her 8-year-old currently demanding more salads and fish dishes.

And although a restaurant on the city's west side specializing in both Caribbean and African cuisine is an anomaly in the Valley, Mbaikambey doesn't seem concerned. Her ever-present calmness seems to override any anxieties.

"It's just something I love to do," she says. "I want it to be different."

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