I met Chef Gladys at the headquarters of what was described to me by the house staff as “basically, the Grammys of food.” In a beautiful kitchen in the basement of a brownstone building on the lower west side of Manhattan, Gladys Shartou, alongside eight of New York’s most creative and inspired chefs, was preparing one of the six courses for diners at the James Beard Foundation “Odyssey Across Africa” dinner, prepared by African Woman chefs and business owners. As the chef, manager, CEO, COO, and holder of every other position in the company she built and still builds from scratch, Chef Gladys was representing Sambuxa NYC at the table, a catering service (and so much more) serving up a delicious menu of traditional and modern Sudanese dishes. Shartou, born with a skill for the seasonings and an affinity for the flames of the food world, offers a healthy selection of flavors from her homeland at Sambuxa NYC, including the titular sambuxas which I was so lucky to try – but more on that later. Because before Chef Gladys was sought out by the enlightened palates of Manhattan, and before she regularly pitched her tent at the Queens Night Market, she saw the world from the eyes of an immigrant several times over, getting a taste of both ends of the horizon, and in between.
Chef Gladys was born in Khartoum, Sudan’s largest and capital city. She stayed there until she was about 5 years old, and then for the first of many times, left to begin a new life in a new place. She went from Khartoum to Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring country Ethiopia, and after a few years to Queens, New York, and then a quiet village in Sweden close to the border of Germany. All throughout her young years, no matter where she was, Shartou grew in the cooking traditions and culture of her Sudanese family. “I started cooking around eight,” she tells me. “Before that I was in charge of preparing salads.” She was always in the kitchen with her family, helping to chop vegetables, but when she was eight years old her father asked her to prepare a whole chicken. “I was like, how do you make chicken? He was shocked that his Sudanese daughter didn’t know how to make chicken. So he showed me how, and that gave me the confidence to help cook real food.”
Outside of the kitchen she also faced new challenges, those of adjusting to her new Swedish surroundings. “They were very conservative when we arrived in the 90’s, the girls had to wear skirts, they had their braids, really Christian. Some of the churches didn’t want people to watch TV.” When her family moved there they were doing well financially in Sudan and in New York, so they were very used to modern living. “They were judging us...they were like ‘oh, you’re from Africa you don’t know anything’ but we were in more developed environments than they were... Even now when I go back, people look, and when I get on the train they’re like ‘who’s this?’”
Stepping in to yet another life as an immigrant in a new country, Shartou left from college in Geneva, Switzerland with a degree in International Relations and moved to Bordeaux, France. and for the first time put on the metaphorical chef hat, cooking Sudanese lunch food to make extra money while in school for International Management. “I put it up [on] a craigslist type page, like ‘hey, try a different kind of lunch.” She hung up the apron when she moved back to the states, working for the Swiss mission to the UN, and then for the Democrats in DC until 2017. “But after the election they let a lot of high level people go, [and] so then I came to New York and I’m like, ‘what’s the next best thing I know? baby-sitting.‘ So I baby sat and I decided to start my business.” And thus, was born Sambuxa NYC in 2018.
Fast forward through countless months of vision, business savvy, non-stop cooking and outright hard work and determination, and Chef Gladys is showing me her peanut chicken skewers sizzling over the blue propane flames beneath the world class dining room that will soon be full of flavor seekers of the highest caliber, embarking on a gastronomical odyssey across Africa. We made our way through the buzz of the kitchen, past Liberian plantain cake and tacos from Benin, out to the patio behind the house, sitting on a long bench opposite a black marble bar to have a chat. I had to know, despite cooking in the cultural smorgasborg of New York City, what challenges Shartou faced serving food from another land. ”You have to educate people about the food, you have to always draw similarities to other cuisines.” When I asked why she chose to start cheffing again in New York, she smiled and confidently told me: “I had nothing to lose, my food is amazing.” She had always dreamed of opening a restaurant and being able to introduce Sudanese food and culture to the world, and her company is “a dream come true.” Her business model as modern and adaptable as her cuisine, Sambuxa NYC is a food entity that caters, sets up at various popups, and takes online meal orders, without the heavy costs of a brick-and-mortar restaurant face. “I do want to open a restaurant some day, just as a sort of home base, but I don’t need that right now.” She mentioned to me that she always felt like New York was home, but when I asked if she considered herself more of a New Yorker or Sudanese, she assured me that she will always be Sudanese. “I am going to back soon... my end goal is to actually [create] a business incubator in Khartoum, to encourage young Sudanese to come in and think about what their talents are and get them some grants, and then start growing our economy.” Far more than just a chef, Shartou is a visionary.
Back in the kitchen, Chef Gladys has two items cooking to be served during the multi-course, multi-chef meal. One, the vegetable sambuxa, I am delighted to be trying; the other, a skewered chicken strip with spices and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, falls outside the margins of my plants-only diet, but please believe my left hand slapped my right away from reaching for the stick end hanging off the grill. And what are the flavors that define Sudanese food? “The first one, specifically, what I learned from my mom is cumin. But we don’t use like two tablespoons, we use a lot, but you would never know the way we cook it down with the onions and everything.” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get Chef Gladys to disclose many details on the secrets of her rich food culture, but she assured me there was an abundant use of onions, garlic, and bold spices that other cultures have yet to orchestrate in such a way. My questions fizzle out as she pulls a basket out of the deep fryer and places 4 four vegetable sambuxas on a small white plate and hands it to me, and while I wait anxiously for them to cool I am enlightened to the dish in front of me and its history. Sudan, a place of international trade in the Eastern hemisphere, has seen many cultures come through its gates. The sambuxa is a triangle of fried crust wrapped around a filling of spiced beef or vegetables, similar to the Ethiopian sambusa or the Indian samosa. Sambuxa crusts, however, are made with a rice-based flour akin to that used in some Asian cuisines, and so they have a very light and crispy wrap much like that of a Thai spring roll.
The time has come. The four crispy, golden triangles rest on my plate like crown jewels on a satin pillow, the faint glisten of a thin oil coat, corners and creases expertly folded into the dimension where food and art become indiscernible. I bite in to the first one, and everything Chef Gladys promised came to life on my taste buds. The thin crust collapses easily into light, pastry-like flakes and the filling of potatoes, cabbage, onions and peppers is indeed uniquely flavored in comparison to its cousin dumplings in the eastern cuisines. I could write line after line mounting a futile attempt at what can really only be discovered through experience. In retrospect, I should have taken much more time to truly savor the fruits of Shartou’s craft, but as with all delicious food, my crispy quartet was devoured in short order, and maximum self-discipline was exercised in my effort to leave any sambuxas for the diners upstairs.
Aside from the veggie sambuxas I ate and the grilled chicken skewers, Sambuxa NYC offers a range of #foodanese flavors for everyone, including vegan selections such as veggie and sweet potato-spinach sambuxas, peanut butter eggplant salad and vegetable stews, alongside beef and chicken sambuxas, and as many stews, salads, and wraps as you could want at your event. She may not have a restaurant, but if you’re looking to taste the works of Chef Gladys you can contact her for catering at sambuxa.com or find her at any number of events she serves at around New York, frequently posted on her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter under the same name.