Like most restaurateurs, Jordan Benissan expected he’d be running his popular restaurant Mé Lon Togo in Waterville this spring, but the pandemic had other plans for him. Not able to keep the restaurant open, and falling behind in rent, his landlord evicted him. These setbacks led to his announcement to close his restaurant in March.
An acquaintance, a food blogger, who followed Benissan on Instagram, reached out to the food community in Portland and organized a Go Fund Me campaign for him, generating $16,000, which put Benissan back on his feet again, and allowed him to acquire a location in Camden at 56 Elm Street, formerly a furniture showroom next to Children’s House Montessori School.
Benissan, who also owns another restaurant of the same name in Searsport, has decided to focus all of his energy on the Camden location in 2020. He brought all of his furniture, kitchen equipment, and even a full bar down from Waterville and has been busy painting and renovating with the aim to open for dine-in service by the end of July.
Some might think it’s risky to open a restaurant during a pandemic, but Bennissan is optimistic that the 2,000-square-foot space is large enough to socially distance diners, and with multiple dining rooms, a private area, outdoor dining with five tables and a 40-seat capacity, he’s hoping he’ll be able to turn a profit.
Benissan, who moved to Maine from Togo, a country in West African, 20 years ago, started off his career as a professional traveling musician. A music professor at Bowdoin and Colby College and a musician who specializes in West African drumming, Benissan has roots in Camden, having taught high school students at the Watershed School.
He’s also done cooking classes through CHRHS and Adult Ed, which has introduced his food to a variety of people in innovative ways.
“I’ve always been part of the Camden community, quietly, and have done fundraising dinners for the Watershed School,” he said. “So, now I’ve been given an opportunity to really be part of Camden and to have people get to know me.”
Known for his West African cuisine fused with European influences, his menu will be prix fixe at $40 per person with four courses. His Cognac Chicken is one of the more popular dishes.
“It’s a European recipe, but I put my own spin on it,” he said, with spices he imports from West Africa.
Mé Lon Togo translates to ‘I love Togo.’ Self-taught as a chef, Benissan uses as many local ingredients as he can in season. But, it’s the flavors, he creates, that people cannot get anywhere else.
“People love the Gumbo and the West African Chicken in Peanut Sauce,” he said, of his signature West African dishes.
He cites his vegetarian stew as another hit, made with sweet potato, plantain, eggplant, zucchini, portobello and shiitake mushrooms, celery, garbanzo beans, and spices.
While Maine is known for its creative culinary scene around seafood, Benissan said, “I have a different idea of how to prepare seafood than other restaurants. When I think of really modern seafood dishes, I am inspired to create a Cioppino. This is a dish, when presented to you, you know you’re going to enjoy seafood in a way you haven’t before.”
Traditionally, an Italian-American fisherman's stew, Benissan makes it his own with lobster, shrimp, scallops, crabmeat, and snow crab legs with a vegetable broth cooked with wine and spices.
“That flavor is gold,” he said.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org