Fanerra Dupree is one-half of the husband-and-wife duo that heads up Black Nile, the laid-back eatery in Brooklyn, New York, that serves halal soul food to the masses. If you think the menu sounds like an out-of-the-ordinary combination of cuisines, Dupree doesn’t blame you. “We are in our own box,” she said. In this Voices in Food story, as told to Anna Rahmanan, the chef discusses the difficulties involved in operating an establishment that follows dietary restrictions, what it’s been like since COVID-19 hit the industry, how being a Black restaurant owner has changed throughout the years (if at all) and more.
On the inspiration behind opening a halal restaurant — and the difficulties involved
We wanted to put out there something that people don’t see a lot of: an African American Muslim family serving halal food that also happens to be soulful. We just wanted to be true to who we are and put something authentic out there that we know other people are probably looking for as well. We’re Muslims, so it wouldn’t make sense for us to do anything but halal food. At first, people were very, very, very confused and maybe didn’t understand how we were halal but weren’t selling Middle Eastern food. They didn’t understand how soul food could be halal. After a while, people that did get it started to support us.
A lot of times, older people don’t understand and get irritated. They come to a soulful place and want pork chops. But most of those people end up trying our food and loving it.
We’re practicing Muslims but we’re also young, so sometimes since we play music and we’re in our own box, we might not be Black American enough for the people who aren’t Muslim and not Muslim enough, as far as business goes. So we’re in this weird middle space, and it has been challenging in that way.
How the heightened political climate has affected business
Both following former President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and the Black Lives Matter movement, we got way more support. We got a lot of support during that time from people from the neighborhood who felt bad and said, “Why is this being done?” So [the political events] had a positive effect.
I think people are a lot more receptive to things in New York because the culture here is so diverse. It’s kind of like with the LGBTQ+ community: People who come from small cities come to New York to live their truth. People are accepting, they are doing their own thing, they mind their business. It’s just always been the culture of New York.
On whether being a Black restaurant owner or employee has changed over the years
To be honest, I know other Black female chefs who are either freelancing or catering or doing their own thing and, according to them, the industry hasn’t changed at all. Mind you, I’m only 32, so I’m sure it’s better for us now than it was for people a few decades ago. But as far as being in the kitchen and knowing that you’re going to have a male white executive chef, things are just going to be very narrow-cultured in the kitchen. Things like that haven’t really changed, to be honest.
It is very layered: A white girl will get the [job] before I do and, to be very honest, Latin people are led in before Black people are. There’s this stigma attached to [Latinx folks] where it’s assumed they can be worked harder. They don’t speak great English, so [business owners] feel like they can take advantage of them and not have to deal with the sassy Black girl or the man who brings in Black man energy. They kind of avoid us, to be honest.
On how the government can help restaurants stay in business
Because this industry was hit so much harder than most, there needs to be some increased funds coming in so that we can offer people higher pay rates. It’s one thing to have people come back to work, but if they come back to work to the same pain, same conditions, and then on top of that they’re risking their health [because of COVID-19], it is not really a win-win for them. Businesses like mine, for example, don’t have the benefit of offering employees health benefits. So [the government] should probably come up with some packages where it’s easier for small businesses to offer their employees health benefits.
You already don’t make a lot of money in a restaurant. You’re in contact with people, you’re putting your health at risk. You’re in a struggling business where the owners may not be as kind and nice as they were because they’re frustrated, and then you’re not making as much money as well. That’s something I think they should probably figure out for this industry in order for us to bounce back and be successful.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.