Meet the Chef/Owners: African Dream Cuisine

Published on May 26, 2023

African Dream Cuisine owners Neba Ngwa and Stella Musongong

The first thing Neba Ngwa noticed on his trip from the Kansas City Airport in 2010 were all the billboards.

“If this country is as great as they said it is,” Neba said, “then I’ll have my own billboards someday up there.”

Lenexa doesn’t have billboards. But we do have an incubator for small restaurant concepts at the Lenexa Public Market. That’s where African Dream Cuisine took shape under the care and talent of Neba and his wife, Stella Musongong.

Neba arrived from Cameroon with a drive to create his own business – but he wasn’t quite sure what kind of business he wanted. As he stopped by fast food restaurants, his background in sales began to speak to him.

He saw how these restaurants were thriving, focused on variations of one product – cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, sub sandwiches.

“There’s no African restaurant. I wasn’t seeing any.”

He saw an opening in the market for a different kind of cuisine. And he already knew someone with a repertoire of delicious, authentic Cameroonian recipes and creative skill. How could he stay true to the authentic West African flavors, but modify the method of service to emulate the fast-casual dining businesses that are so successful in the US?

“Stella’s a good cook. We all learned to cook from our parents, but to cook as a business is different from what we do at home.”

“Based on the way we prepare our food, it’s difficult to operate in that kind of a concept,” Neba explained. So I started doing my findings. How do I get African food served in a fast-paced setting, like a fast food chain? That’s where I started thinking. But now you have to develop recipes. You have to understand the culture of the people. You have to understand the requirements, the licensing and all that. So that really took me like ten years to get to where I am today.”

“I was having these crazy ideas,” Neba said. “We usually pass by the Public Market, go to church and then come back. One day in 2019 I walked in. I’m like let me go and see what’s going on in this place. I looked at the whole thing, and it was too much for me.

“I walked out. By the time I got outside to the Market’s firepit place, I’m like “Well, what’s the big deal here? The worst thing they will tell me is “no”..”

He walked back in, asked to talk to the manager and was invited to come in for a tasting. Over the next several years, African Dream Cuisine’s market stall gained a strong following of diners who kept coming back for the unique, nutritious flavors Neba and Stella grew up with.

“The beauty about America, on the business side of it, is that there are systems and resources in place to help people who have business ideas bring them to life,” he said. “When I look at the Public Market, that’s just what it is for me. I had an idea in my head and the Public Market let me bring that idea to life. The reason we have a business today is thanks to the Public Market for that intervention and giving us that platform to have proof of concept.”

“When we started it was really kind of a cumbersome operation, that we had to get people to travel with food. There’s no doubt in my mind that our food is good. But I find myself in a different country, different culture, difference perspective, the way they see food.”

"But with the opportunity we had starting here in the Public Market, we’ve got to work on that for the past four years, streamlining the recipe, working on the product every day,” said Neba. “I think this year, I am convinced I have my product now.”

If Neba or Stella are asked to pick their favorite item on the menu, both start laughing.

“Everything! All of it!”

“Why I’m so excited about this menu,” Neba said, “is because there’s been a lot of work put into it in such a way that, if you come to my storefront, you have something to eat. I have the protein. I have the carbs. I have the vegetables. Those who do not eat meat, they have four items to make their plate.”

Neba recommends the meat and two sides option to newcomers. It’s all customizable to your taste and dietary preferences: choose smoked chicken or pork, kongla fried rice, Banso seasoned potatoes, sautéed cabbage and fried sweet plantains. Dream sauce adds savory flavor, while those looking for some heat can request the hot & spicy sauce.

“For the meat and two sides, which we do on a daily basis, we keep it simple,” Neba said. “I try to run a transparent kitchen, so there are no secrets. When you stand in front of our storefront, you will see everything you are eating. If it’s not in that kitchen, it’s not in the food.

“When you look at our food you have to see what you’ are eating. Look at the rice. We see rice, chunks of carrot, peas, green beans, corn. So that’s the fried rice. We will use a little pinch of garlic, ginger and canola oil.

“It has to be simple but tasty, and it has to be on the healthy side. If we do pork, we have to do the most healthy pork. Apart from smoking and seasoning with one seasoning, we don’t do anything more than that. Same with chicken. I do my smoking every day. We don’t put anything else to it, because we believe, as Stella always says, less is more.”

“I believe foods, they have their own natural ingredients in them,” Neba said. “They have their own natural taste. We just try to bring those things out and make them enjoyable for everybody.”

Their food is gluten-free and dairy-free. There’s no butter, no surprise ingredients. If salt is used, it’s just a pinch. There’s no sugar in entrees. The food is as warm, universally welcoming and genuine as the people cooking it for you.

“From the young, even the little kids that eat it to the elderly, when you see them with that smile and happiness telling you, “We’ll be back,” that’s it for us. You find a purpose to do it again the next day.”

“Kids can be picky,” Stella added. “When kids enjoy your food, it’s a win. They want to come back and they keep coming back.”

Stella’s family recipes are the heart of African Dream. She learned traditional Cameroonian cooking from her mom at home and on trips to her grandma’s farm.

“I didn’t grow up cooking using a stove and gas and all this nice fancy stuff,” Stella said, laughing. “No, we grew up that you have to look for your wood, and put it in like three stones, and light them and put on the pot. That’s how we cooked while growing up. My grandma taught me to cook that way.

“I think now is easier for us because we have everything. That’s why I find it easy to display all this favor. Here, you can regulate the heat. How do you regulate the heat back there? Sometimes you pull some woodout, you put the wood back. It was technical, but I grew up doing that.”

One special meal on African Dream’s menu is fufu with egusi sauce, which Stella learned to cook with her family.

“Those are a really authentic, traditional meal from Cameroon, to be specific,” she said. “Corn fufu is the one we grew up with. There are different kinds – there’s yam fufu, potato fufu, cassava fufu, plantain fufu. Fufu is a dried corn meal. You cook like mashed potatoes until it’s hard, but not too hard, just right for you to eat with the sauce.”

“Everybody in America, they think of soup as something you can drink. We call that soup, but here in America we have to call it a sauce – something goes with it. In the sauce that you eat with the fufu, there’s pumpkin seeds, which are healthy. Dried pumpkin seeds are called egusi. You blend it, you cook in a little bit of maybe onion, tomato, garlic, ginger, black pepper, white pepper, just to season it up, not make it spicy. And you put in a handful of fresh spinach and canola oil. And then you can put in whatever kind of meat you want. The one we use here is the smoked chicken.

“You take a little bit of the fufu, dip in your sauce, a pinch of smoked chicken, then you eat it. There’s no wrong or right way to eat that. Authentically, growing up, you eat it with your hands – wash your hands and do all that. Not everybody likes to feel the texture – it’s okay."

“Working for some big corporations, sometimes they just tell you thank you to keep you working,” Neba said. “They might give you a gift card to go somewhere or something. But coming into the food industry and cook every day for people to eat. If someone tells you thank you, he really means it. For me, that’s a big difference. For me, just those who come back and say “Thank you. The food was really good.” “Thank you. It made our day.””

He asked Stella to share a recent story.

“The lady came in with her husband, and they decided to have us for lunch” Stella recalled. “She got her plate, the husband got a plate, and they went and ate. We always check up on our customers to make sure they had a good meal and get their feedback. Our business is successful today because we take positive and negative feedback. You’re not hurting our feelings if you tell us,

“Oh, it was too this; oh, it was too that.” We want honest feedback to help us grow.
“So, I was just checking up on her, like “How was your food?” She paused for a minute. She turned red, and then she said, “Your food just made our day even better. This was like a home-cooked meal. It just made our day better.” And come to find out, she went into detail to share with me that she just lost her mother yesterday. And they just wanted to go out and relax a little bit. Her husband brought her here. Our food just made it better.

“To me, that was just priceless. I asked her if we can give her a hug, and we thanked each other. I appreciated her.
“I could not wait to tell my husband. I was like, “You know what? This food is like medicine.” It’s like a message to people. It brings comfort. It brings peace. It brings love. It brings people together. And this right here just tells us what we’re doing, it’s not just the food. It’s a heart. That heart contains, food, love, compassion, integrity, respect.”

“African Dream Cuisine is for everyone,” Stella said. “Tell us how you feel about the food. Ask us questions. We are always ready to educate or tell you what’s in the food.

“We are just a couple living our American dream – African Dream Cuisine itself says it all. The dream we dreamt of someday coming from Cameroon, of owning a business, a food business. We are living that dream, and we are so grateful and so privileged and honored to be part of it here in America and in Kansas. Yes. We just love our people, and we are thankful.”