Mamma Oretha seeks to ‘unite the people’ by showcasing African cuisine and soul food in Des Moines

Alex Seakor in front of his restaurant Mamma Oretha — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Alex Seakor has introduced a whole new kind of fusion restaurant to the Des Moines scene. Mamma Oretha, which officially opened its doors at at 1000 Army Post Rd on June 25, is pairing African food with soul food to give the ultimate cross-cultural experience. Come for the mac and cheese and fried chicken, stay for the cassava leaf and plantains.

“The reason why those are going to match up together so good is because to have two things that are similar but different,” Seakor explained, “but at the same time can unite the people, [which] is the whole goal.”

As you may have guessed, Seakor named the restaurant after his own mamma, Oretha.

“I wanted to make it a place where people feel at home ’cause my mother cooking, to me, is how I feel at home.”

Seakor was born in Liberia and moved to Des Moines as a boy once his mother found out their U.S. relatives had relocated to the city. There were more job opportunities for his family in Iowa than there were back home, Seakor explained, so his family soon followed, and have been in Des Moines ever since.

“I chose to open up a restaurant ’cause for a long time my mother had been cooking and everyone, since I was little, always loved her food. And me growing up I was always around different types of cultures and I got to experience the American culture soul food and it gave me a taste that I cannot forget. So, I wanted to add both of the things that I love together and [have them] in one place.”

“So, Mamma Oretha is both African and American.”

Photos by Courtney Guein, collage by Jordan Sellergren

This is hardly an odd pair. American soul food is the legacy of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Deep South, who tapped into their culinary heritage to make creative use of the humble ingredients enslaved people could most easily get their hands on, such as rice, okra, pork ribs and certain spices.

“Soul food comes from the root of African food. So, you got to understand that when I taste soul food, I feel like that food is a part of me. And when you taste African food, you feel like that is a part of you and with your ancestors,” Seakor said.

He plans to introduce menu items from across Africa, featuring a different country about every two weeks to pair with the soul food. Families from Ghana, Liberia, Sudan, Congo and Egypt will be invited and paid to cook their traditional foods at his restaurant, allowing Des Moines a taste of various cultures while providing the families who cooked the meal with extra income. Eventually, Seakor wants to add Jamaica to the list.

After eating, customers have the opportunity to write on a chalkboard wall inside Mamma Oretha, indicating which foods they loved most. Seakor will watch closely for fan favorites and possibly add them to his regular menu, with Liberian food being the main African category.

Aside from being a fledgling restaurant owner, Seakor is also a music producer and DJ. He said he’s recorded with children of African immigrants interested in his restaurant idea, and wanting to get involved.

“They come to me, and how I can help them is for me to let their mother cook and then I pay their mother,” he said.

Seak Paradise painting by Alexandre Shiffer inside Mamma Oretha. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

He has been promoting his restaurant through artists, promising a free plate once Mamma Oretha opens in exchange for recording music with his company, Seak Vision Studios. He also owns a restaurant back home in Liberia, also called Seak Vision, employing family members and investing the profits back into his family and their community.

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Throughout the year, he hosts events to give away free food, backpacks for children, clothing drives and more, all out of pocket. He feels that he is now in a place to give others what he didn’t have growing up.

Seakor has an even larger vision for Mamma Oretha’s future. His plan is to have five locations up and running in five years, in five large Midwestern cities.

“I’m looking forward to building the community, putting people together so they can see that when you taste this food, it can take you back home,” Seakor said.

The restaurateur has high hopes for himself and the city.

“Des Moines has a culture, but nobody understands Des Moines’ culture and it hasn’t been put on a platform for everyone to see,” he said. “So, I feel like what I’m doing here is definitely going to show people that Des Moines is bigger than what they think it is.”

He sees Mamma Oretha as a destination for visitors.

“I know I have a platform right now with everything that I’m doing so it’s going to shine a light on the city,” Seakor said.

The restaurant will be open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 9:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Painting by Alexandre Shiffer of Alex Seakor and his mother Oretha — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Courtney Guein is a Des Moines staff writer for Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 004.