Jambo Café chef and owner Ahmed Obo wears his local celebrity well. Which is to say, he wears it humbly.
He will talk about his four years winning Best Chef in SFR's readers' poll, or Jambo's eight straight years as winner in the international cuisine category. But he'd rather talk about the Jambo Kids Clinic he set up in his hometown of Lamu, Kenya, to provide health care for the families who live there.
Growing up in poverty, as he did, Obo wants to help people still living with inadequate resources. "People there need it so bad," he says, recounting that last year during a flu outbreak, he received reports that there were 140 people at the clinic he built receiving the care they needed.
"I'm very happy," he says of the clinic's work. "Coming from nothing and growing up, God [gave] me this business and it succeeded, but I always knew the best way to continue is to give it back."
The giving takes place in Santa Fe, as well, where Jambo participates in large fundraisers, such as ones to benefit The Food Depot (Obo's soups are a regular winner at its annual Souper Bowl competition), Kitchen Angels and La Familia Medical Center, and offers gift certificates and other assistance to numerous additional organizations.
He believes that spirit of giving is part of Jambo's success.
"Helping and giving back … has been the success for Jambo," Obo says during an early evening interview at the café, where tables are starting to fill up in the popular eatery even though it is barely 5 pm. "People feel it here at Jambo: People eat and they know this is not just for money, this is something from somebody's heart."
Of course, there's also the food. The popular menu features items such as coconut chicken curry, Caribbean goat stew and banana leaf-wrapped island spiced mahi- mahi.
Obo is also happy to talk about his personalized version of Afro-Caribbean recipes, based on the cuisine of Kenya.
"I love to cook," he says. "My cuisine or my home style of cooking touches a lot of people's hearts; it's comfort food." In his culture, he says, "we don't really have recipes. It's the same way grandmother cooked and your mother cooked and the next generation passes it on. So, I've used it and the people who have been to, especially Kenya, and have been to Jambo say, this is better than they have had in Kenya. For me that translates: I have used my Kenya idea with American experience."
Obo's story has many starting places. It could start in 1995, when he first moved to Santa Fe, a city he loved from the start. "I felt it the first time," he says. "I was in the Plaza and just thought, 'This is a nice place to live.'"
Obo cooked in others' restaurants, the former Atalaya Restaurant and Zia Diner, before starting his own restaurant in August 2009. He had a vision of what it would look like, the food he would serve, and the way his place would help the community that had become home and where he was raising his family.
"When I was preparing to open Jambo, I [felt] the idea that I would give back … that this is who I am and Jambo Café is another way God is guiding me to do more."
But the story also stretches back to Obo's childhood in Kenya as the eldest of 11 siblings—the one who looked out for his younger brothers and sisters, as he still does to this day.
He grew up sailing with his father, who had his own sailboat. Later, when his father could not repair his boat any longer, Obo found another smaller dhow, purchased it, and spent three years painstakingly repairing and restoring it. From there, he launched his own business, taking tourists fishing, sailing and snorkeling. And he cooked for them. "It was a joyful time," he says. "Just like being here at Jambo."
Being a business owner, of course, comes with challenges. In March 2017, a car drove into Jambo's storefront, forcing Obo to close for six weeks. This year, after two years in business, Obo closed Jambo's Albuquerque location, saying he was simply stretched too thin trying to run both.
But he's not one to focus on the negative. He'd rather discuss Jambo's 10-year anniversary, for which he's organizing a party this summer in the Railyard.
"We are a Santa Fe baby," he says. "We want to make sure everyone comes and celebrates."