Dracut’s Emile Kamadeu, 40, came to the United States after growing up in Cameroon and dabbling in politics in Gabon. An information technology engineer by trade, he’s also a martial-arts expert, father of three young boys, head of the Cameroon Social Club — and a newly minted restaurant owner. Sahel restaurant on Central Street in downtown Lowell serves a blend of Caribbean and African food. Kamadeu also collaborates to hire employees from UTEC, a Merrimack Valley organization that provides workforce development to at-risk youth. In his spare time, he enjoys making crispy omelets with his kids (and even mowing his lawn).
Tell me about Sahel.
It’s a full-service restaurant located in downtown Lowell. We’re mostly focusing on serving Afro-Caribbean food, with a touch of French and Cameroonian influence, because I’m originally from Cameroon. My partner, Peter [Tamajong], is as well. It’s a country located in Central Africa colonized by both the French and the British, so we speak both languages. But our cuisine has some French influence to it.
What do you hope that this restaurant does for the community?
We want to bring people an opportunity to taste something different, and we know that here in Massachusetts, we do not have many African restaurants.
But, more importantly, we want to give opportunity back to the community of Lowell. We want to be able to employ the locals. We’re trying as much as we can to also deal with local businesses. Right now, we’re buying our African food supply from Godwin African Market. We also shop at the FoodLand in Lowell, which is a new store, and they have fresh fish.
In terms of employment, we have three people whom we want to onboard coming from the UTEC shelter, which is an organization not too far from our location that helps those who are on the streets and gives them a second chance. We’re giving back by giving job opportunities but also bringing a difference to the community with a different type of [cuisine].
Tell me why you chose to open the restaurant in Lowell instead of Boston? What was it about Lowell that attracted you?
[We chose] Lowell because of the melting pot of the population and the diversity — and not only the diversity, but also the history. Lowell has a lot of immigrants, people from many countries. We thought it would be a good target for us to bring a diverse type of cuisine to that type of population. Not only that, Lowell is a beautiful city. We love the landscape.
What brought you to the United States from Cameroon?
I came to the United States in 2003 from Gabon, which is a neighboring country to Cameroon. I studied in Gabon, and I was involved in politics. When I was interested in politics in my country, at the time, things weren’t going well. Democracy was just hitting some African countries. My uncle was very involved in politics, too, and I worked with him a few times before he got arrested. That actually made me leave the country. From Gabon, I came to the United States, and that’s how I landed in Boston. I chose Boston because I thought if I come here, I can pursue my education. I was very interested [in] Harvard, MIT.
What led you from politics to restaurants? That’s a big switch.
Actually, back home, my mom used to own a restaurant in a city called Douala. Douala is the second-largest city in Cameroon. She’d been cooking for a very long time, and I knew that I’d open my own restaurant because I found myself very interested in cooking.
When I came to the US, my first job was actually working at Pizzeria Uno as a cook. Then I worked at Applebee’s, and also I managed a small restaurant in Everett, Massachusetts, called Tres Gatos.
I brought a different vibe there; I added some appetizers that I was making myself. ... This gave me the drive to get into the industry. Then I found a place in Lowell.
What was it like to open a new restaurant during COVID?
We’ve been working for the past four years to get our restaurant open. The place used to be a nightclub, and we thought that with a couple thousand dollars, we could make some little changes, buy some equipment, and open.
But the place was not actually up to code with the city building department. There were a lot of things that needed to be changed. It took over two years of construction. It was a nightmare getting the place open with all the approvals from the city, but we did it.
It was just after the COVID pandemic went down a little bit that we resumed the project. Then we were able to bring some equipment and do some decoration, painting.
You have an interesting story of how you met your business partner, Peter.
Yes. He’s also from Cameroon. He’s the founder of the Cameroon Social Club, our main Cameroonian organization. It’s a nonprofit that he founded in 2002. When I came here in 2003, I thought that there were no Cameroonians around. When I was at a train station, I was [always] looking at people. I was always asking people if they were from Africa, if they spoke French. At that time, my English was very, very bad! If you looked like maybe you were from Cameroon, I’d ask you: “Do you know where I can find more Africans, more Cameroonians?”
And that’s how I got to know Peter. There was a soccer game that he organized under the umbrella of the Cameroon Social Club. That game took place in Roslindale. It didn’t take me two minutes to know that he was a great man based on what he did to bring Cameroonians together. So I met him there, and he asked me what I could do for my community. I told him I was an information technology engineer. I told him: “I can do anything that you want me to do in terms of technology. I can build a website.”
And that’s how we met. I started working with him at the Cameroon Social Club, and we became very close. When he decided to step down as the chairman of that organization, he gave me the opportunity to become the next chairman, and I took it. He’s more than a friend; he’s a role model.
How would you describe Cameroonian food to people who might not be familiar with it?
Cameroon has over 300 different dialects and different ways to speak. It’s the same with the food. Cameroon has a very diversified food culture. We have all types of dishes in Cameroon. You’ll find vegetarian dishes, you’ll find spicy dishes, you’ll find salad. So what we’re bringing into Sahel is that diversity.
The Caribbean part is more like fish and seafood. We also bring in more vegetable dishes. We have one food called ndole. Ndole is a typical, traditional food from Cameroon made with bitter leaves and fresh peanuts. You can make it with goat meat or beef, or you can also add some smoked fish. It’s a traditional dish.
Besides that, there’s so many things. We have what’s called poulet dg. This is actually a ripe plantain that we mix with roasted chicken. Every month, we’re going to introduce something new, so people can give us feedback.
Did you love food growing up? Was there a favorite thing that you ate?
Back home, it’s legal to have more than one wife, so I came from a very large family. My father had four wives, and I have more than 20 siblings. So back home, the base meal was rice with stew. It can be chicken stew; it can be fish stew. And you can have steamed plantains or fried plantains that come with it.
But I loved ndole the most. It’s something you can eat with white rice or yellow rice. We have many types of yellow rice from Nigeria, from Ghana, from Cameroon. The Cameroonian one is made with fresh tomato, and they put in some salt. It becomes yellow, like Spanish rice. That was my favorite.
How would you describe the food scene in Lowell? Where do you usually eat?
I usually go to a Portuguese or a Portuguese-Brazilian restaurant. But I’ve also tried Cobblestones, where I like grilled steak. When I want to eat heavier, I will go to a Brazilian restaurant, Oasis.
What do you like to do in your spare time, when you’re not working?
I love sports. I’m actually a martial-arts expert. I have three boys, so I will bring them and my wife to do some exercise with me — even though they think martial arts are too dangerous.
I also like to pick up my house: cleaning, doing the landscaping, mowing. I like to use that time to keep myself in some kind of physical activity. So if I don’t practice or do sports, I will do either cleaning or cooking. Every Sunday, my kids love my breakfast. They keep telling me that.
I do a different type of omelet. I add some ham, I’ll put in some onion, I’ll put in some green pepper. And then I serve it as a sandwich. [My kids] love when it’s very crispy. It takes me a couple minutes to do that, but they love it. Every Sunday, they’re waiting for it. My wife told me that after Sahel, I should start doing African breakfasts. You never know.