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Ọkàn Wants to Make Bluffton, South Carolina, a Destination for West African Cuisine

Chef Bernard Bennett hopes his restaurant will change the conversation about African American foods

A Black man with glasses and a kitchen apron, smiling and leaning against a wall.
Bernard Bennett will open Ọkàn in April.
Ashlee Carrozza
Erin Perkins is the editor of Eater Carolinas.

If you haven’t caught Bernard Bennett’s food truck, Ọkàn, in Savannah or Bluffton, South Carolina, then you may not be familiar with the chef, but when he was named a 2023 James Beard Emerging Chef semifinalist, his name and his West African cuisine went to the top of many diners’ “must-try” lists. Now, in April, Bennett will open his first restaurant with the same name as the truck, Ọkàn, in Bluffton’s mixed-use development the Bridge Collective (71 Calhoun Street).

Ọkàn will focus on the foods and flavors that came to the Lowcountry through enslaved Africans forced into the fields and kitchens along the South Carolina coast. “I would describe the food at Ọkàn as a journey,” says Bennett, “I think that what is known as African American cuisine, like the stereotypical fried chicken, grits, and collard greens, is not representative of us. It’s in our history, but our history is much more than that. The expressions on my dishes go back to West Africa, where many enslaved people came from, and take a trip through the Caribbean and onto America.”

A sample menu from Ọkàn begins with starters like corn pudding with blue crab, okra roasted in harissa, and pumpkin seed dip with benne seed crackers. The bread selections contain Trinidadian bara with chutney, coco bread, roti, and cornbread with seasonal butter. There’s an entire section dedicated to rice, a crop that many enslaved Africans were forced to cultivate when they came to the Lowcountry; there’s jollof rice, coconut rice, Haitian djon djon rice, Sea Island peas and rice, and Carolina Gold rice. Entrees range from curried oxtails to peanut stew to duck and oyster gumbo.

Bennett says the bar will focus on classic cocktails with an emphasis on rum, which comes from the Caribbean influences on his menu. He wants the Ọkàn experience to be upscale but approachable — no stuffy white tablecloths here.

There’s not another establishment like Ọkàn in the Lowcountry (though there is a West African restaurant planned for Charleston in the spring), so Bennett hopes that visitors will seek him out in Bluffton. With the multitude of tourists from nearby Savannah, Hilton Head, and Charleston, he thinks it has the potential to become a destination restaurant.

“Ọkàn means ‘heart and soul’ in the Yoruba language, one of the first languages in West Africa,” says Bennett, “And being the heart and soul, I want to tell people that everything we do and all the food we present has love in it. We’re not doing anything to stir up any drama. I want to celebrate the heart and soul of the underrepresented people and their cuisines. I want West African and Caribbean cuisine to be recognized just as much as French and Italian. That’s my goal.”