Nina Sodji has cared for those around her, her entire life. At only 18-years-old, Sodji immigrated to Omaha from Togo, Africa after becoming increasingly concerned over the country’s looming civil war.
Knowing that she wanted to help her community in any way she could, Sodji pursued a career in nursing, and spent several years working in different nursing homes and hospitals. However, she faced burnout caring for the sick.
“I was seeing that you can wake up one day, and not the next.” Sodji says. “I was only in my early 20’s, so it’s like you just don’t want to see how fragile life is when you’re that young.”
After giving birth to her first child, and still working as a nurse, Sodji began serving her community through food. The young mother took it upon herself to cook homemade African dishes for the other immigrants, many of whom were young adults pursuing higher education. A large influx of Togolese immigrants, including Sodji’s siblings, provided her with plenty of hungry mouths to feed.
“Everyone knew my siblings and I as the first wave of Togolese immigrants who came to Omaha,” Sodji says. “My brother was a very popular guy, and he’s very outgoing. A lot of his friends followed him here. When they would ask if he knew anybody who cooked, he would say, ‘Yeah. Nina! Go reach out to her!’”
Slowly, requests for more of her home cooking grew.
“They would say, ‘Oh, that’s really great, can you make me a pot next week?’ And it would just repeat. My weekends got busier and busier,” she says. “I mean, it just literally went viral in the community. Even way back then.”
Feeding her community deepened Sodji’s love for cooking. She drew inspiration from her mother, who had previously owned a convenience store in Togo. This combined with her continued inflow of new customers inspired her to open a small grocery store, carrying traditional African goods and food items, which she later expanded into a restaurant.
At first, she experienced wide-spread success, but when forced to move. Sodji says she struggled to find a customer base at the new location. The 2008 recession led to new challenges for Sodji and her family.
The closure of her business brought hardship and pressure to Sodji’s entire family. Some family members encouraged her to return to nursing but her passion for cooking prevailed.
She continued to cook for her community and shared the culinary creations she learned in Africa. In 2012, she enrolled in culinary school at Metropolitan Community College and graduated two years later with an associate degree in Culinary Arts. Regardless of the adversities she faced, Sodji persevered and continued to cook for those in need, working briefly in the kitchen at a nursing home.
For a fleeting moment, Sodji says she feared that her dreams of running her own restaurant would never become a reality. That was until she attended the Global Leadership Africa Summit, a professional networking event based on appreciating and empowering African cultures and people.
While attending the summit, a guest pointed out to Sodji that despite being at an event meant to bring awareness of African culture, they served tacos for lunch. This interaction made Sodji realize that international cuisine is everywhere, yet no one seems to know about traditional African dishes.
“When you mention Mexico, or other regions and countries around the world, there’s a food attached to it. When you mention Asian food, Mexican Food, or Italian food, everyone knows what you are talking about,” Sodji says. “But when you mention African food, everyone kind of goes ‘Huh?’ That’s the part that worries me. We’re the biggest continent, so much of our culture is based on food, and no one knows what we eat.”
In 2020, Sodji opened Okra African Grill, a restaurant that combines traditional African cuisine with her American culinary training. She creates unique dishes that attract diners who have never eaten African cuisine. The build-your-own style buffets like at Chipotle and Qdoba inspired her to allow her customers the freedom to try different dishes and ingredients at their own comfort level.
“Americans eat with their eyes first. Even in the grocery store, I see a lot of bananas and potatoes and things being thrown away because it doesn’t look pretty enough, or it has a little brown on the side,” Sodji says. “‘So, I’m like, OK, we need to make it presentable, and we need make it more appealing to the masses.’ When the eyes look at it and it looks good, ‘I can actually try this.’ And then, the nose smells all the different delicious smells.”
Among the most popular menu items are “Nina’s Bowls” that feature pork, lamb, steak and shrimp with vegetables and rice. Other African specialties feature Jeloff Rice, a red rice with grilled chicken in a hearty tomato sauce. The dish includes vegetables and plantain and is garnished with fresh diced tomato, onions, green peppers and parsley.
Sodji says she hopes her African cuisine brings awareness of the importance of embracing all cultures.
“So, for me, Okra brings awareness to the culture in Africa that our food is delicious,” she says. “The same thing as you and I eat, but maybe in a different way.”