When was the last time you really tried something new?
In Albany, Obinna Nwagboso saw a need for something new in the Hudson Valley, and so he filled it. He and his wife Kelechi own the West African fusion restaurant Keobi on Albany’s Lark Street. They moved to the Capital Region after a tenure in Manhattan. When they arrived, Nwagboso wanted to test out the viability of a Nigerian eatery. He surveyed offices, college campuses, and businesses throughout the Valley to collect information.
“I interviewed people, and spent about a year collecting data on local restaurant businesses. I was a little scared at first, as the results seemed too good to be true. People here wanted African food. They wanted to expand their palates and introduce new spices into their diet,” Nwagboso explains. “People wanted to gather and sample this kind of food, and there wasn’t a place around to do it. There was a real need and a desire for this.”
His scientific approach for gauging interest in Keobi isn’t too surprising. Prior to opening the restaurant, Nwagboso built a long, successful career as a chemical engineer.
His employment spans from Nigeria to Brooklyn, working for companies like US Energy Group and Albany Molecular Research, Inc. Before moving to the United States, Nwagboso spent a lot of time taking care of his siblings. He got regular practice cooking local staples and West African specialties. In Manhattan, he managed several food establishments, ranging from chains like Papa John’s to more independent, urbane eateries. His involvement in the food industry was always in a managerial capacity, and in support of his career.
“My schooling, engineering skills, analytical skills, and Masters of Business Administration have all helped to compose a good business plan [for Keobi],” Nwagboso explains.
In contrast, his wife Kelechi lives and breathes food. She started, like her husband, at home in Nigeria. Her mom taught her how to cook at a very early age. Next, when she was old enough, Kelechi worked in her mother’s restaurant. The couple has a combined 40 years of experience in the food industry, according to Nwagboso. Now, Kelechi crafts specialties she’s made her entire life in a new setting (specifically, dishes from northern and western Nigeria).
Overall, Nwagboso considers Keobi a fusion restaurant. The eatery serves meals that are unique to different parts of Nigeria, as well as dishes from other countries in Africa. Some of the menu even takes inspiration from the Caribbean. What ties it all together is the concept of a gathering place. In Nigeria, few things are as important as coming together for a home-cooked meal. Weddings, promotions, having children, and everything in between is celebrated with a huge, collective meal. Conversations about family news and global events occur over roasted goat, ogbono soup with fufu, and spicy jollof rice.
“The jollof rice is the center of it all. It’s a tomato-based meal. Spice it up with some thyme, some bay leaf, ginger. We make it in a unique way,” Nwagboso explains. This staple unifies a myriad of culinary traditions across western Africa. It is the most common part of any meal, big or small. “My wife developed our jollof rice for about a year and a half, making small adjustments after Keobi first opened. In general, the menu is driven by what the customers tell us,” Nwagboso says.
The lack of African cuisine in the Capital Region sparked a hunger for it. Hudson Valley transplants from the African continent yearned for a place to have these staple feasts in a public setting, while native New Yorkers craved flavors that were new to their palates. Nwagboso takes pride in the fact that more than half of his regular customers are not African. Jollof rice sells like there’s no tomorrow, and the kitchen goes through over 100 pounds of goat meat each week.
“The people coming through the door are so grateful to have choices. They are grateful that they can afford to decide ‘I’m going to have African food tonight. We’ve never tried it.’ People have come from Massachusetts, New Jersey, even Nashville to try our food,” Nwagboso enthuses. “Keobi could be a takeout-only option, with how popular it was during the pandemic—and it would certainly reduce overhead. However, you’d miss that customer interaction, you’d miss their smile when our food first enters their mouths. You want to curate an experience [for people], and get feedback.”
And the Nwagbosos curate quite the experience. There’s a lot to explore on the menu, which offers both spicy and non-spicy versions of every dish for the faint of tongue. Keobi focuses on staple dishes that highlight Nigerian spices, and many of these ingredients often have holistic uses. Nwagboso mentions some of the dishes are traditionally served to people recovering from illnesses, mothers who just had children, and those seeking general wellness. For diners new to African cuisine, fufu is a special treat.
This doughy side is made from fermented cassava, the base ingredient in tapioca. Fufu soaks up hearty soups and stews, making it the perfect accompaniment for much of Keobi’s menu. Peanut butter soup, okra soup, and edikaikong, a leafy green-based soup, all pair beautifully with fufu. Nwagboso jokes that his daughter eats it with jelly, and doesn’t know where she got the idea.
For adventurous eaters, Nwagboso included a “delicacies” section of the menu. Spiced goat heads, hot cow feet, and peppered snails challenge visitors to embrace the unexpected. Those with the courage to leave their boundaries at the door will discover delicious comfort food that warms the soul. At Keobi’s one-year anniversary party this past spring, Nwagboso set up a buffet-style feast. Guests stepped outside of their comfort zone and tried things they had never ordered before.
Telling stories and explaining every dish’s meaning, Nwagboso witnessed the culmination of his and his wife’s hopes for Keobi: a place to gather, a place to talk, and a place to dine on cuisine both familiar and new.