This story was first published in Metromode, our sister publication.
Interested in getting a taste of top-notch Ethiopian cuisine without having to book a plane ticket to Africa? If you happen to be in southeast Michigan, Seifu Lessanework has got you covered; he’s the founder of the Blue Nile family of restaurants, a unique pair of dining establishments based in Ferndale and Ann Arbor dedicated to providing patrons with an authentic Ethiopian experience.
A family business, Blue Nile’s Ferndale location is co-owned by Lessanework and his wife Fetle, while the Ann Arbor operation is owned and managed by his sister Almaz and her husband, Habte Dadi. Both establishments offer a wide selection of vegan and meat dishes prepared in the traditional manner of the East African nation.
“We cook it exactly the way it was done back home,” says Seifu. “You don’t just come here to eat, you come here to dine. Dinner is a celebration.”
The Blue Nile
The cuisine of Ethiopia is shaped by the presence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a branch of Christianity with roots that stretch back at least 1600 years there. Due to these traditions, pork is not eaten and vegetable dishes figure prominently due to long periods of religious fasting where dairy and meat are prohibited. Ethiopian cooking also requires fat to be boiled away from meat, butter clarified, and vegetables cooked in oil or steamed.
Customers thumbing through the Blue Nile's menu will find vegetable selections like Yemisir Kik Wat, a mix of spicy pureed red lentils and berbere sauce, and Gomen, a plate of chopped spiced greens cooked with onions, garlic, and jalapenos, as well as chicken, beef, and lamb dishes. Instead of utensils, patrons are encouraged to scoop up food with a special flatbread called injera that's baked without dairy products, eggs, or shortening. The Ferndale and Ann Arbor restaurants also offer desserts including fruit sorbet and drinks like Ethiopian coffee, spiced tea, and a glass of special in-house honey wine.
Both of Blue Nile's locations feature a distinctive décor inspired by life in Seifu's home country. The restaurants' interiors feature the comforting presence of warm woods and patterned fabrics, as well as paintings, depicted stylized angels inspired by the iconography of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Customers have the option of sitting at booths or small round eating tables called mesobs and food is served in special baskets.
The Blue Nile
The meals at Blue Nile restaurants are eaten just as they are in Ethiopia, with people sharing the same bread and eating from a common tray that can accommodate up to four people.
“Our dishes are a reflection of society there,” says Seifu. “Society is family-oriented. From the grandpa to the last born, all eat from the same plate together. No one eats less or better than you. When we bring the whole plate, it’s communal eating.”
From the Nile River to the Great Lakes
The Blue Nile’s origin story is a fascinating tale that crosses continents. It begins with Seifu, a native of Ethiopia, working his way up in his country’s catering and restaurant industry and finding employment at the royal palace in Addis Ababa, where he helped prepare meals for Emperor Haile Selassie himself.
Later he traveled to Europe to study at the École hôtelière de Lausanne, a renowned hospitality and culinary arts school in Switzerland and later work as a chef with the Hilton hotel chain in London. After that, he returned to his homeland to work with Hilton at a hotel in the Ethiopian capital. Following the outbreak of a civil war in the mid-1970s, however, he chose to relocate to New York.
In the Big Apple, Seifu took his training even further at the Culinary Institute of American and was hired as a chef at Windows on the World, the famed Manhattan restaurant that was located on the top of the World Trade Center and was later destroyed in the September 11 attacks of 2001. After five years there, he was recruited by restaurateur Chuck Muer to work for his family of high-end seafood restaurants.
The Blue Nile
"Windows on the world was one of the best restaurants ever. I was proud to be on that team, says Seifu. “Chuck Muer brought me from there; he stole me from there.”
He came to Detroit with Muer in 1982 and moved around to help with restaurant endeavors in Florida and the Bahamas for while ultimately deciding to settle with his family permanently in Southeast Michigan where he would try his own hand at business.
He opened the first iteration of Blue Nile — named after an Ethiopian tributary of the famous African river — in downtown Detroit's Greektown district in 1984. The Ann Arbor location followed in 1989, and the Detroit restaurant was moved to Ferndale in 2001 as a result of rising rents related to casino development. Seifu also opened a third location Downriver in Trenton in 2007, although it didn't find a solid foothold there and eventually closed.
Although Seifu’s duties are more of an administrative nature these days, he started off as a cook. And while his business has grown and changed dramatically over the years, the Blue Nile founder has made it a mission to impart his special culinary knowledge to the restaurant's staff.
”I trained every cook who works here,” he says. “And I test every day because it has to be the same. Anyone who was here from 35 years ago will attest to the same thing. Consistency is everything for us. “
Serving up an unforgettable experience
During their three-and-a-half decades of existence, Blue Nile's restaurants have built up a pretty strong following. Countless first dates, graduations and wedding receptions have taken place inside their walls and many, many people have been introduced to Ethiopian food and traditions through them. The Ferndale location has proven to be a popular destination for local and visiting business people. Charitable endeavors like benefit dinners for wounded veterans have also made Ferndale's Blue Nile a fixture of the local community, a role recognized by the Mayor’s Business Council earlier this year when it honored the Lessaneworks with an Entrepreneurs of the Year award.
As for the Ann Arbor restaurant, Lessanework’s brother-in-law says it caters to a more academic crowd. “The university brings [customers] to the city,” says Dadi. “It’s a very nice location, good people and we serve a lot of professors and movie actors who come to Ann Arbor.”
Operating a successful restaurant for 35 years is no small feat. Just ask Fetle, who says the amount of care and attention required from her husband and herself has been considerable.
The Blue Nile
“Running a restaurant is like raising a family,” she says, “because you have to make sure that business is running well and your customers and your employees are happy.”
For his part, Seifu attributes the business’ success to many different factors: uniqueness, politeness, giving people value for their money and supporting the local community. But at the end of the day, it’s perhaps the commitment of himself and the Blue Nile's staff to their customers that shines through most brightly.
“I have served the King of Ethiopia, the Queen of England and eight U.S. presidents,” he says. “Deep down in my heart, I do my best to make sure I give the best quality experience possible to every customer we have. It's about the experience.”