Zweli’s Ekhaya, the new concept from Zimbabwe-born Chef Zweli Williams, will completely transform the space formerly occupied by Saladelia in the Crowe Lobby. What was previously a fast, casual coffee and pre-made lunch kiosk-plus, will become an enclosed and stylized high-end tapas restaurant focused on Bantu-fusion, a mix of flavors and delicacies from the Bantu indigenous ethnicities from across Africa.
“Ekhaya in Bantu is more than a word, it is a feeling, a sense of being ‘at home’ wherever you are,” says Chef Zweli Williams.”These feelings of comfort, support, and familiarity are what we strive to bring to each diner via our menu and dining experience. Whether it is something brand new or a new take on something familiar, we want each and every visitor to leave our restaurant feeling as if they have returned home.”
Chef Zweli, along with husband and partner Leonardo “Leo” Williams, opened the nation’s first Zimbabwe restaurant in 2018 (Zweli’s Piri Piri) and the crowds and accolades quickly followed.
From best new restaurant to best chef to best chicken wings to best restaurant for vegans/vegetarians, diners have found a delicious and novel menu served alongside a demonstrable commitment to community.
For Zweli and Leo, food is only the beginning of their commitment to “Ekhaya.” While Zweli’s journey started thousands of miles from Durham, Leo attended NC Central where he served as the Head Drum Major for their prestigious marching band. After college, Leo became a Durham Public Schools teacher and administrator earning the honor of “Teacher of the Year.” He is a mentor to young men of color in the community and a candidate for Durham City Council.
Zweli’s interest in food grew as a young child in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe where she learned to make unique, creative dishes from the ingredients available. Upon graduating from high school, she emigrated to the US and attended NC Central where she met Leo. After graduating, Zweli entered the restaurant industry managing several restaurants while retaining her commitment to cooking and her roots in African Bantu cuisine. After attempting to find a restaurant that served these dishes, she and Leo decided to create the nation’s first Zimbabwean restaurant.
For the couple who also have a 10th grader at home, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity to support their community. Rather than focus on the hardship of operating a restaurant in a pandemic, Zweli and Leo worked with other locally-owned small business owners to raise more than $3 million to create a small business fund to prevent the closure of small locally-owned businesses in Durham. They coordinated nearly 100,000 meals pre-pandemic and post-pandemic to serve the displaced, elderly, and the homeless.
“We’ve had the very fortunate opportunity to work with dozens and dozens of restaurateurs and thousands of entrepreneurs at the American Tobacco Campus and American Underground,” says Adam Klein, director, American Tobacco Campus. “Zweli and Leo represent the best of Durham. They are creative, committed, caring, and, most importantly, community-focused. We’re honored that they chose to share their journey with us and take part in ours.”
Zweli and Leo will return to Zimbabwe this December to further hone and add to the Ekhaya concept. The restaurant will open in the spring/summer of 2022 with a complete redesign of the Crowe Lobby space and patio with lots of exciting offerings to be announced.