Meet Ya Mai Sey, a chef and restaurateur about to launch first Gambian-made seasoning

Written by Saikou J

Ya Mai 1

The City of Banjul may not boast of fine dining restaurants, but there is a sizeable number of local dives that make great food.  

One of them is Jarra’s Kitchen, an unassuming casual eatery that stands out for its unbelievably delicious homemade breakfast and lunch options.  

“The real secret to our delicacies lies in our seasoning, which I have made,” said Ya Mai Sey, the owner. “And we’re about to reveal that secret to the world because I’m turning it into a business and my seasoning will soon be available for sale.” 

Ya Mai is a chef - a professional chef, as she would insist on being referred. The emphasis reveals a tinge of anguish in her about how low her profession is looked upon in The Gambia. 

 

“When I travel abroad, even in Ghana, people gather around us for selfies. We are celebrated. But here, when I tell someone that I am a chef, they’d ask me to rather say that I am businesswoman, that is more attractive. Business what! I am a chef!” 

Chef Ya Mai is versatile with skills and experience in a wide range of cuisines. It was her mother, a local chef, who nurtured her culinary skills at a tender age before she underwent professional training.  

Her culinary adventures have taken her far and wide, participating in international competitions and conferences for professional development.  

After completing her studies at the Gambia Tourism and Hospitality Institute, she worked at the hotel industry, including Laico Atlantic, a 5-star hotel in the capital.   

In 2016, she opened Jarra’s Kitchen, a fast-casual restaurant for eat-in and take-outs, but also provides professional catering services for conferences and a wide range of special events from formal sit-down fine dining dinners to parties of whatever size. 

“I have named the restaurant after my grandmother; she was my favourite,” Ya Mai said with a smile.  

For now, Jarra’s Kitchen boasts of an all-female team of waiters and cooks who are friendly, fast and diligent. The restaurant is situated at the heart of the Central Business District on Ecowas avenue. A block away from the city’s main market, the area is dominated by banks, government offices and trading shops.  

The local dive is a regular spot for a diverse pool of professionals – particularly bankers, security personnel, traders and government officials. The breakfast menu items include a fish, shrimps and chicken while a traditional African dish is served for lunch.  

“Chicken is the most popular among our customers. Like I told you, our secret in the seasoning and my seasoning works magic on any chicken recipe,” she said.  

For a flat rate of D125 for a plate of chicken, shrimps or fish, the restaurant offers an excellent value for money. Each plate comes French fries, a delicious cocktail sauce, vegetables, and noodles.  

“True, I want to make a profit but, more than anything else, I want customers to have value for their money. So our pricing with regards to eat in and take-outs is designated to help us make just a little profit to be able to take care of some expenses.”  

With the seasoning that she is set to launch, hopefully in March, Ya Mai is hoping to establish the first Gambia made line of gourmet seasonings that would be more flavorful.  

She said: “I have been to many countries on work-related travels and I have seen the kind of spice blends they use to season their chicken and I know mine is in many ways better. So, my target is beyond The Gambia. I want my product to go places.”