Food Consumer, Creator, & Community Builder
“We really respect food because food is a part of us, it is human. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have to have something in your belly in order to function. Therefore, wasting food is not something that would be accepted in my culture. We respect food because it is part of us.”
My name is Mamadou Savane, Sav for short. I’m the owner of Sav’s Grill, West African cuisine, here in Lexington, Kentucky. I moved to this country on March 21, 1993, with my then girlfriend, who was in the Peace Corps. That is how we met! She is originally from the Chicago area, but moved to Lexington a year before she applied to the Peace Corps and went to Guinea. We met through mutual friends in Guinea. We went out dancing and the rest is history!
“In Guinea, rice and sauce, or stew, are our main thing. We eat that every single day, but when there was a special occasion my mom would sauté chicken with potatoes. It didn’t happen often but when it did we would feel like we are eating like rich people.”
We moved directly to Lexington and stayed with her sister for a couple weeks and another friend for another month before we got our own apartment. To be honest, the United States is totally different from Guinea. It didn’t matter if it was Kentucky, or New York, or anywhere, life is totally different. The way we live in Guinea…it is always warm and we are always outside and have community, neighbors and friends. My mom’s house was where our friends came. When I moved here, it was very hard for me to get used to having an isolated life, and the language was difficult. Back home, we speak French, along with other Guinea languages. I was starting my life all over, which was the hardest part. I didn’t give up, although there was a point where I wanted to go back home. But when we moved here, we started a family. She was pregnant with our child, who is almost 27 now. That was not in the plan, but it happened. That was another reality that really hit us. We didn’t have much to live off of and now we have a small person coming into our lives. But you know, it’s a part of life, we take these challenges everyday and deal with it.
“Growing up, your birthday would come and go and you would not even know, or your parents would not even remember. We would never celebrate something like that. But there are holidays, special occasions, when my mom felt like she had extra money to have something tasty. Those things you never forget! Where I am now, with my own family, sometimes I wonder how she did what she did…how she fed us. I don’t think about this often, but when it comes to me, I almost want to cry because I know how we grew up and how difficult it was. But as a child, you don’t know, you don’t have that responsibility. So now, to see how challenging it is raising children and having your own family, I really respect her. I try to do everything to make her happy, to say thank you.”
The restaurant idea started when we bought our house in 1994. I really did not want to rent, to just give our money away. We still live in the same house today! In Africa we were always around neighbors and community, so we tried to make that happen in our new house. We soon came to the idea of hosting a block party on our street. We did that for eight years! I grilled for all our neighbors for eight years. Every September we got a permit from the city and everyone gave ten dollars. I used to grill 85 to 90 pounds of meat through the night. Neighbors bring the side dishes and we put tables in the middle of the street. It was a lot of fun! Through those years this whole restaurant idea started kicking in. Every time I make a West African dish, all my neighbors say, “Man, this is good !” I was cooking West African, Guinean, food at the block parties, but also neighboring countries, Senegal, Mali…so that’s how the idea started.
“Our household, in Guinea, was so attractive to so many friends and relatives, it was always packed. If you came to our house at lunch time, you would be invited to eat. Generally, in our African culture, you will see that everywhere. Our friends and family always remember how my mom shared our food with anyone who came to our house, and the food was so tasty! I still have a friend who I grew up with, everytime we talk about food they remind me of what they used to eat at our house. I don’t know how my mom did it. I went back in 2016 and 2019 and life has changed. It is not like that anymore. Things evolve over there too, so nowadays if you go to someone’s house, and you’re not invited, most likely you’re not going to be sharing food because life is getting expensive. But we do have these memories. They stick with you for the rest of your life.”
During this time, I was working at the Hyatt Regency and UPS. I was doing both jobs for seven and a half years. We had a little person now with us, so we had to find a way to feed him. Through those years I always thought that one day, I was going to open my own restaurant. That is something I thought about for ten years. Working for big corporations and big companies, you are just a number. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you care about your job, you are just a number. So, I started contacting some friends, asking if they want to be a part of the investment in the restaurant. Trying to open something that was totally new in this area was a challenge. No one had eaten West African food in Lexington, Kentucky. I quickly realized I was not going to have investors, or a partner. So, one evening we were sitting at home and I approached my wife. I said, “I think I’m going to go at it alone. Do you trust me?” She said, “Yes”. I repeated that three times. I refinanced our house, took that money and opened our restaurant in 2008.
I worked for a year and a half in both the new restaurant and at UPS. That was a crazy time because of the economic crisis! I am opening a restaurant and the food I’m going to be serving, people have no idea what it is. There was nothing similar in Lexington. That was a huge challenge for me. At first we had to have pictures of the food, so when people came in, I would come out and say, “If anything catches your eye, just let me know and I will give you a sample.” It is all about taste. I did that for a while, to give people a chance to try our dishes. You are allowed to say you don’t like it, but at least give it a try.
“In Africa, most families have someone who is cooking for them, even though it was under the direction of my mom, this person would put everything together. My mom would follow her progress and ask if she put this in, and that in. After my step-dad passed, my mom became the head of the family, so all the decisions would be coming from her. My step-dad had a nice position in the government, an 8am to 3pm job. At home, he was the only one allowed to sit at the table. My mom would make sure he was well fed. If a day was special and chicken was made, the best parts would go to him. With my step-dad’s family, when we sat down to eat, it was usually quiet, but my mom was more open minded. If I was only with my siblings, we would be telling stories. There are always stories told around food. The youngest ones would always listen to the oldest siblings, who would tell us their tales of the day.”
Men are not usually cooks in Guinea, but my family is mainly dominated by females. My mom had six children, three boys and three girls, plus her two sisters, one niece and one cousin. My two brothers moved away, the eldest went to Paris and the second came here, to the States. So I accidentally found myself as the head of our household. I had to make sure my sisters were okay. But with all the women, I started observing the way they cook. Sometimes with life you can catch something you aren’t prepared for, and have to face reality. When we came to the States we had to cook for ourselves and I would always call my family asking questions:“How do I do this?” My mom and my sisters are excellent, excellent cooks. I learned alot from them. My business is almost 14 years old and I still call them when I am creating new dishes.
“Growing up, we didn’t sit down with a fork and knife to eat, we sat around a big bowl. For the respect of the food, you hold the bowl with your left hand and you eat with your right hand. You can’t waste anything. We really respect food because food is a part of us, it is human. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have to have something in your belly in order to function. Therefore, wasting food is not something that would be accepted in my culture. We respect food because it is part of us.”
It is such good karma to feed people, it is so satisfying, so rewarding. I feel like I’m doing something good through my restaurant. It is the hardest business you can put yourself into. It makes a difference if you love cooking, or love food, and want to start a restaurant, versus just having money to hire somebody to do everything. This is my soul here. This is who I am. I love it. Meeting different people every day, it’s just great. What else can you hope for? I am very happy! I was probably missing that connection, that community, that I had in Guinea, so being able to create someplace people enjoy being, it makes me feel like I am doing something. If I die tomorrow, I just want people to know that I am happy and that I accomplished something. When I started, that was not my vision, but doing it every single day, and the response I get, it is so satisfying.
[ Mamadou Savane is photographed at his restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky on 120mm film. ]
Sav grew up in Guinea, located on the west coast of Africa, and gleaned his cooking skills from his talented mother and sisters. Sav met his wife, Rachel, when she was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea. They moved to Lexington, Kentucky, Rachel’s home prior to Peace Corps life, and started their family.
Sav spent many years cooking and grilling for family and friends, and finally made his dream come true by opening his own restaurant on South Limestone Street in 2008. He then jumped into the ice cream-making business, opening a place across the street from his restaurant four years later.