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West African food raised her; now she hopes to bring that love to southern Dallas

Chef Keke Samba remembers the first time she felt a real belonging: She was sitting on the floor surrounded by her West African neighbors, and everyone was gathered around the same plate using their right hand to eat Tchep, a Senegalese tomato-based rice dish often served with fish.

It gave her the feeling of community that she had craved as an elementary-age child who was often left alone weeks at a time to fend for herself by a mother who struggled with addiction.

“This is normal, this is family,” Samba said of the memory. “It’s peaceful and a sense of togetherness. I didn’t know that, like being left alone for the majority of my life. I didn’t know that until they gave it to me and so that’s why food means so much to me – because it’s about family.”

Samba, now the owner of Chopping Roots – a vegan food truck that serves Afro-Caribbean-Soul food and a Sunny South Dallas food park staple, said her goal has always been to bring people together.

It is what she learned as a South Central Los Angeles native growing up in her West African community. Although Samba didn’t share their cultural background, she said they adopted her and fed her when she needed it the most.

“That’s why I love it,” Samba said. “Like that’s who I am as a person, because they could have just left me out there like many other families have. They could have not offered me food or they could have not fed me. Because they did, I started becoming like family. Within West African culture, that’s what they do: They feed. Nobody goes hungry.”

Samba’s chef journey came out of necessity. She’d look in her near-empty cupboards as a child and wonder what she could make with a can of beans and a can of corn. Again, her neighbors played a part.

“They started me off with chopping,” she said. “It’ll always be different kinds of things. They’ll have okra, they’ll have onions, they’ll have peppers. Then, when I started to grow, they actually started showing me the seasonings. So, it just became a natural thing, and I flowed into it.”

Her love for cooking grew, and as an adult in 2015, when she realized her son wouldn’t hold down animal products, Samba made the switch to a plant-based lifestyle.

Keke Samba puts dressing and toppings on an order from her vegan Afro-Caribbean food truck, Chopping Roots, at the Sunny South Dallas Food Park in Fair Park on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.(Liesbeth Powers / Staff Photographer)

Four years later, with the encouragement of her friends and family after perfecting her vegan versions of the food she grew up on — from West African gumbo to peanut butter stew — she started Chopping Roots, determined to use her food to connect with the South Dallas community, which reminded her of how she grew up.

“South Dallas is a food desert, and there’s really nothing out there,” Samba said. “Being from South Central L.A., I relate to that. Living and growing up in the hood, we don’t get good food, we don’t get good restaurants. When I started this, I was just like I have to make sure that no matter what, this is accessible for South Dallas.”

Achieving that didn’t come immediately. She began by selling food out of her 700-square-foot apartment with lines wrapping around her building. At her peak, she was selling 25 to 30 plates a day, and many of her customers were driving to North Dallas from the southern sector, she said.

“I was like you’re driving all that way?”

The food she serves can be broken down into three categories: soul food, Caribbean, or West African. Her menu changes regularly and features dishes such as okra stew, fried chicken, goat curry, or her oxtails, which is her most popular dish.

And her customers can agree on one thing: She puts her soul into her food.

Stacy Thomas, an avid fan of Samba’s candied yams and meatloaf, said she found Chopping Roots on social media and wanted to support Black-owned businesses. She stuck around as a regular customer because she’s never tasted anything like it.

“It’s full of flavor,” Thomas said. “I just like when people make things and it tastes like they put their soul into it. She really cares about what she creates for people. You can taste it.”

Chopping Roots’ menu is full of soul, passion and love. Samba said she always pays attention to the energy she puts in her food.

“I’m big on energy, and I’m so intentional with how I cook,” Samba said. “So if my energy is out of whack, I’m not going to serve you that because I’d have served you crap. If you tried my food you would feel there’s a lot of warmth and love in my food. We need that. We need that love.”

Marcel Coleman and Allen Roach have made it a point to show up to every event that Chopping Roots attends. They, too, can feel the love Samba puts in her food.

“It’s like a flavor explosion, right?” Coleman said. “She really goes to the end to make sure the flavors are packed in, to make sure the food is seasoned well and is prepared well. You can tell she cares about the food. She cooks with a lot of her heart and a lot of her soul. That comes through it.”

The two decided to pursue a vegan diet together for health reasons. Roach said that finding vegan restaurants in Dallas was difficult until about two years ago. However, Chopping Roots was one of the few food businesses that the two have tried that has been consistently flavorful.

“If more people just ate her food, they wouldn’t even know it’s vegan first off,” Roach said. “Second, they also would follow her around like this. It’s delicious.”

Keke Samba (right) laughs as she takes an order from Zoe Clark from the window of Samba’s...
Keke Samba (right) laughs as she takes an order from Zoe Clark from the window of Samba’s vegan Afro-Caribbean food truck, Chopping Roots, at the Sunny South Dallas Food Park in Fair Park on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.(Liesbeth Powers / Staff Photographer)

Chopping Roots customers mean the world to Samba. It was with the help of a customer that Samba was able to transition from selling plates out of her apartment and various markets to a food truck, which is what helped her become more accessible to the southern Dallas community.

“I don’t want them to drive like that, and they had to get out and stand in 107-degree weather,” she said. “I want to be close to them.”

Now, Samba said that about 90% of her pop-ups take place in southern Dallas.

“I go hard for my customers because they go hard for me,” Samba said.

Even when her business was struggling and inflation made keeping up with Chopping Roots near impossible, Samba said her social media DMs were flooded by customers asking where she is and how she’s doing.

Her partnership with Sunny South Dallas food park kept her afloat and running today. Samba hopes to open her own brick and mortar one day. For now, the food park is where her customers can find her about every month with the next date March 26.

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