Julia Gham was seven months pregnant, with a toddler and just $100 to her name in 2015 when the financing for her restaurant fell through. For ten years she’d had multiple jobs—slinging ice cream, working hotel gigs, driving a cab—preparing an ambitious business plan to open a spot specializing in the food of her native Cameroon. Just as she’d attracted enough backing to make it happen, an angry text from her jealous fiancé scared off her investors.
“Julia, you were so perfect,” her main backer told her. “We’d been looking for one thing that was going to take you down, and we just found it. How are you gonna pay all your investors back if you have an insecure man in your life that’s gonna send all your customers out of your restaurant?”
Gham ditched the insecure man and sunk her savings into a West Rogers Park rental condo. “I had to start all over from the bottom up,” she says. When her daughter was born, she resorted to what she knew best. “I love cooking. If I’m not doing it, I’m not happy.”
Gham wasn’t always so desperate. She was born in the village of Jakiri and grew up in her mother’s restaurant in the northwestern city of Bamenda. The food of Cameroon, which is situated at the crossroads of west-central Africa, is among the continent’s most diverse, incorporating staples from various countries and influences from some 250 tribes, as well as colonizers from Portugal, Germany, Britain, and France.
At 19, Gham moved to Germany for five years and cooked in Turkish, Italian, and Chinese restaurants. “I learned a lot and I wanted to take that to my mom’s restaurant to make a few changes, and I thought it would be nice to have a Cameroonian restaurant out in the west.” She settled on Chicago for its diversity, and in 2005 got her first job stateside at Ghiradelli on the Mag Mile. She also started hosting house parties at her condo and cooking for homesick African friends—jollof rice, egusi soup, ndole.
Fast forward to 2015, which found her with two kids to feed and vanished investors. She threw a few parties and saved enough for a $150 insulated food carrier and a Chevy Malibu she rented from a friend. Strapping the kids into car seats, she made the rounds of downtown cab stands selling prepackaged containers of rice, beans, plantains, and beef and fish stew. She knew operating outside the law was a precarious business model, and while she’d already applied for her food service manager’s certification, she was the beneficiary of both goodwill and hostility from her competitors. One of them offered her a good deal on an idle food truck, but once she got that rolling, another called the cops on her.
“A police officer did show up,” she says. “It was illegal for me to have my baby up front, and he was going to write me a citation. I said, ‘Officer, I am here trying to feed my family to make sure I secure a roof over my kid’s head and also try to build something good. I have registered to have a food truck license. I am in the process. I am raising money. I am putting it back to make sure I get this right. I am not robbing a bank. I am not shooting anybody.’ He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘You know what? I am so proud of you. Make sure you get the license real quick.'”
Julia’s Afri-Cuisine food truck was licensed, branded, and rolling between O’Hare and downtown cab stands in short order, and Gham began working toward a brick and mortar location. Last winter she got a lead on a restaurant near McCormick Place in a neighborhood she’d been scouting since the beginning. In April 2019 she opened the Powerhouse Restaurant, a bright storefront on State Street she’d outfitted with plush lemon-lime high back chairs, and a broad menu encompassing western breakfast plates, fresh juices, burgers and sandwiches, grilled “aphrodisiac” proteins, and a deep selection of West African dishes prepared the Cameroonian way.
Gham’s mom joined her in the U.S. in 2017 after violent unrest made things unsafe back home, and they cook everything to-order, from scratch, including khati khati, a grilled and baked chicken dish seasoned with sharp pebbe, aka African nutmeg, and finished in a bit of palm oil, a specialty of her own Nso tribe. This is served with a spicy side of njama njama, typically the sautéed leaves of the garden huckleberry. Sometimes that’s difficult to get when sources from Atlanta or Minnesota are depleted, so she subs a combination of spinach and bitterleaf, another foundational green that finds its way into the common West African egusi soup, thickened with ground melon seeds, and its Cameroonian cousin ndole, based on ground peanut, and served with a choice of protein (particularly good with shrimp, aka ndole crevette).
Many of these stewy dishes are served with some form of fufu, which in Cameroon doesn’t just mean doughy orbs of elastic pummeled yam, but any kind of pounded starch—corn, cassava, cocoyam, even oatmeal. Gham knows precisely which variety goes with which dish (corn with ndole, yam with egusi), and every month or so she hosts pounding parties where folks gather to thrash these starches into their simultaneously hearty but buoyant textures.
She’ll usually serve a variety of saucy off-menu things with these, such as achu, a vivid yellow soup made with a mysterious spice blend that includes dried plantain peels and ground limestone (served with taro fufu), or mbongo tchobi, a dark tomato-based stew, blackened with the bark of the mbongo tree, and seasoned with pebbe, alligator pepper, a nutty spice known as njangsa, and grains of paradise.
If you’re new to Cameroonian food, there’s a lot to discover on Gham’s menu. She named her restaurant Powerhouse because she has a lot going on. She’s a presenter on a weekend talk show on the pan-African station WGHC (98.3 FM), she runs a multimedia company based in Ghana, and has worked as a talent scout and party promoter for Cameroonian artists. A movie she produced, Saving Mbango, just premiered in Cameroon, and it’ll get its turn in D.C. in March and at the restaurant in April.
She also just founded the nonprofit Powerhouse Educate Orphans, with the aim of taking in at-risk kids and offering them job training. “I’ve had a judge ask me why I wasn’t a lawyer,” she says. “I’ve had a doctor ask me why I wasn’t in the medical field. I’m very versatile. I’m a solutionist.” v