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Soleil, dimmed

I was cooking dinner when I heard Soleil Banguid had died.

Chef Soleil

I stepped away from the stove for a moment to gather myself. The pinto beans I was making could wait, and if there’s one thing I learned from watching Soleil cook, it’s that food should only be cooked from a place of love and happiness—tears and dinner do not mix.

Food served by Soleil and his wife, TJ, came with big hugs and even bigger smiles. This was not just about eating, it was about friendship and community and family. And Soleil served at the center of it all, clapping his hands together to punctuate great joy, smiling so wide it was as if nothing else mattered beyond those moments of connection.

I had no idea how fleeting those moments would be. When my parents visited at Thanksgiving, we took them to Soleil’s African Cuisine in Alameda for their last dinner before they flew back to Ohio. They had gone with me to Soleil’s restaurant in Coralville, Iowa, and I wanted them to see where he’d landed, here, in the Golden State, where he and TJ were turning out not just those same dishes we loved back in the heart of the country, but even more. I wanted to tell him that The Unicorn and I were engaged, because I knew he, too, had his own story of a journey to find real happiness in California.

I took home enough leftovers that night to make two more meals. I let nothing go to waste.

“I’m so sorry it’s been so long since we’ve gotten over here,” I told him that night. “But I promise we’ll be back soon.”

But these days, life moves at the speed of anything but African time, so we didn’t make it back to the restaurant.

When I lived in Iowa, Soleil’s food was like home, especially if you were me, adrift in the center of the country, grasping for something that reminded me of better times. His was the first pop-up restaurant I ever ate at. Steve and I would bring a bottle of wine and walk down Iowa Avenue through the icy air on a Saturday night, and turn into Lou Henri’s, where the usual smells of French toast and hash browns had been replaced by the scent of coconut and chilies. There was Congolese music on the stereo, and for Steve, who had served in Africa with the Peace Corps, and for me, who had spent time in Nigeria growing up, it was a cheap and imaginary trip away to something we recognized deeply.

He opened the restaurant in Coralville, and it was a wonderful and strange sun-yellow space with all kinds of tracts and African goods for sale at the front. But in the back, it was all about the food. It was a small menu, and he couldn’t always source as much tilapia as he wanted, but everything was delicious, and it all came with a hug and his ever-bright smile.

When he disappeared from Iowa, I puzzled over the fact that he was gone.

Then I moved to California and found him, and his marvelous cooking, again.

The last time I ate Soleil’s food, it was not at his restaurant, but at a Communications training here in Oakland in January. I was expecting the usual deli sandwich platter for lunch, but came around the corner to find trays of his Cameroonian Ndole, or chicken in groundnut sauce, his rice, and his Makemba, or fried sweet plantains. I ate two plates that day, barely waiting until everyone had gotten a first helping before I went back for seconds.

I remember feeling guilty, for a moment, that I was eating so much, but my three team members who were there with me went back for more, too.

I couldn’t have imagined it was the last time I’d get to eat his food. If I had, I might have eaten three plates instead of two. I might have wrapped some up, taken it home, and saved it for a night when I could have heated it up, played some Congolese music in his honor, and smiled, widely, in his memory. It wouldn’t have been the same as seeing him again, but it would have, mouthful by mouthful, been something.

9 Comments on “Soleil, dimmed”

  1. #1 Kristina
    on Mar 13th, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I’m so sorry Genie. After reading this, I’m upset I never got to taste his food. I can’t imagine how sad you must feel. Sending love from TN.

  2. #2 inadvertentgardener
    on Mar 13th, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Kristina, his food was amazing. Definitely cooked with love and joy.

  3. #3 Sharon Gratto
    on Mar 13th, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a gracious and joyous human being and creative chef. Dad and I will remember always how fortunate we were to share in two of his African meals in two different cities. Thank you for the opportunity and the beautiful tribute. I can still taste the food! Love, Mom

  4. #4 inadvertentgardener
    on Mar 13th, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks, Mom. I’m glad you and Dad were able to share in the meals, too. I’m especially glad we made time for that last meal on your Thanskgiving visit!

  5. #5 Mitch Samples
    on Mar 21st, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    This is very sad. I had the pleasure of working with Soleil in Iowa City as a hearth bread baker. He was one of the best bakers I have ever met. He could form loaves half asleep, which he often did because I don’t think he ever stopped working. I remember he used to try to get me to deliver papers with him on the way home in the early morning after our baker’s hours. I still make those recipes of his I can remember and though he was Congolese, and I Illinoisan, they remind me of our mutual home in Iowa.

  6. #6 Genie Maybanks
    on Mar 21st, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    I just “Googled” Soliel’s name to see if I could find an obituary that included his time in Iowa to link to… and I came across your blog. This is truly a lovely tribute! Thank you for putting in words something many of us are feeling. He was a contagiously happy guy. I remember him fondly.

  7. #7 Craig Albright
    on Mar 21st, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    Thank you for writing such a nice tribute to such a wonderful person. I had the pleasure of working with Soleil at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa and eating at his Coralville restaurant. I even took my entire Pastry department there for a staff dinner once. We had the place to ourselves and he treated us like kings and dear friends simultaneously. Such a wonderful spirit. -CA

  8. #8 Ann Dudler
    on Mar 21st, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    We are so very sad to hear this news. We followed Chef Soleil around Iowa City to several different different locations. Venuto’s World Bistro was the first place we encountered his amazing food and storytelling. Later we found him cooking at Lou Henri and would make it a point to savor all his wonderful dishes. Finally he opened his own restaurant and we enjoyed some stormy nights waiting for wonderful things to come out of the kitchen. We were very sad to see him leave Iowa City. I still think of the avocado salad and ginger juice as two of the best things I’ve every had. Chef Soleil you will be missed!

  9. #9 Janet Lenore
    on Mar 24th, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Since I only met Soliel and TJ in Alameda and Hayward, this posting tells me a lot about how well Iowa City loved him too. We were so fortunate to have Soliel’s wonderful cooking at my partner’s 50th Birthday party, held at the restaurant on February 10th. Chef was so full of life, playing his drum, having fun, and knowing he’d just won over another 30 converts to becoming lovers of what we called “African comfort food.” I literally dream of seeing his photo inside a restaurant that bears his name and serves the recipes he developed.

    Meanwhile, next is a memorial service for Soliel on 3/30/2013 at New Bridges Presbyterian, on Adrian, in Hayward, CA at 12noon. Wear white and orange in the Chef’s honor.

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