“It’s been a journey through food.” That’s how local restauranteur Seni Alibi-Isama describes the quest he has undertaken to open his own restaurant on South Main Street in Statesboro. From New York to Atlanta to Statesboro, each step of the way brought him closer to his dream. 441 Public Kitchen & Bar opened for business on June 10, 2015, to fulfill Seni’s life-long passion for great food.
“I’ve been cooking since I was seven or eight-years-old,” said Seni. “My mom is from Trinidad and Dad traveled for business all over the world. It was mostly Mom and my two brothers growing up.”
He attended grade school in New York in a household where every meal was prepared from scratch. “It was a treat to get to eat at McDonald’s,” he said.
“I remember standing on a step-stool picking crab, peeling shrimp, and boning chicken,” he said, “while Mom and Grandma cooked.” Seni’s house was known by the neighborhood kids as the place to hang around at mealtime.
“Because we had a family of boys, our friends would hang-out at the house and they’d get fed, too. Those guys would come up from the basement and Mom would just keep cooking pancakes until everyone had their fill. It was like keystone cops coming out of a car – when are these guys gonna stop coming?” he said.
The knowledge of food he gained at the knees of his mother and grandmother, plus living in New York City, an area first in food and drink, ignited Seni’s passion for great tasting food with authentic flavor.
He attended middle school and high school in Atlanta, graduating from Cedar Grove High in 1997. He met wife, Janetta in a tenth grade French class. “She wasn’t very nice to me to begin with,” he said. But both came to Statesboro to attend Georgia Southern University, married, and like many others, chose to stay in Statesboro once they graduated in 2001.
Janetta became a Special Education teacher and currently works at William James Middle School. Successful in the field of education, she has been Teacher of the Year and recognized as television station WTOC’s Top Teacher.
Seni majored in English and history and worked for Viracon for a few years. He left Viracon to open a computer store on East Main Street. “I taught myself computers,” he said. “How to build and repair them. I did operating systems, etc. It was a good business. I was very busy all the time, but I got tired of sitting in front of a computer screen.”
The real impetus for opening the restaurant was frustration over the choices in food in the area.
“I like more of a variety and more ‘guts’ put into the preparation and taste of food,” he said. Plus, Seni has always been inspired by food as a catalyst for life. “I really have a profound love for food and what it does for people,” he said. “Food is the center of good times. People celebrate with food. Providing that celebratory experience is very satisfying and rewarding to me.”
Seni started by cooking what he knows. “If I don’t know – I start playing around with it,” he said. “It becomes less difficult once you gain a level of competence.”
He opened South and Vine Public House at the corner of South Main and Vine Streets downtown in January of 2013. The successful restaurant was open for two years, but tragically caught fire and was destroyed on August 14, 2014.
“I learned very young, life isn’t always about what’s fair,” Seni shared. “It will challenge you relentlessly. How you react to the challenges is the true sign of your character.”
Seni’s reaction was to find another location in the downtown area where he could reopen. It took about a year, but by June of 2015 he was ready to open 441 Public Kitchen & Bar at Midtown.
The eclectic menu at 441 illustrates Seni’s approach to the culinary arts. “We cover local favorites like shrimp & grits, catfish, and fried green tomatoes,” he said. “But, we put something exciting in every dish. We prepare our own sauces, bake our own bread, and we use local food as much as we possibly can in preparing our menu.”
The kitchen at 441 is a behind the scenes look at what makes the restaurant above the ordinary. It consists of three separate rooms: the grill and stove-top section, closest to the main dining room, where the chef prepares the entrees; the adjacent “prep” kitchen where sauces, salads, and ingredients are prepared for the chef; then the bakery where all the bread, rolls, and buns are freshly baked each day. The kitchen area is so large, Seni acquired the building next door to accommodate the expanse.
The latest in restaurant equipment is on hand to assist in perfect preparation of the food. “We don’t have food sitting under a warming light,” said Seni. “We have a thermal circulator that cooks things within ten degrees of accuracy indefinitely. It will not go beyond 125 degrees. At higher temperatures the proteins in meat will breakdown over time,” he said. “Our method tenderizes the meat without adding chemicals.”
This allows Seni to offer a very large and, yet, tender steak. “We have what we call ‘steak for two,’ where we can offer a 32 – 48 ounce Porterhouse cooked to order that is the most tender steak in town,” he said. “It really is an experience in dining.”
441 also prepares all its own condiments including catsup and mayonnaise, along with flavorful sauces like chimichurri and curries. They grind their own hamburger meat. Plus offer a Fresh Catch of the Day and, “We have the best gumbo anyone can experience,” Seni said.
Seni prefers to use all local products. His ingredients come from Hunter Cattle Company, Prosser Seafood, Grassroots Farms, Walker Farms, Honeydew Farms, and H.L. Franklin Honey among others. “I sought these people out for vendors,” he said.
But, food is not the only part of the dining experience at 441, there is one of the area’s most extensively stocked bars as well. “I didn’t have a beer until I was 30,” Seni said. “It just wasn’t my thing. But, in developing the restaurant, I like to know everything. I did a bar program and a wine list. We started with classic techniques and from that you can see the evolution to our approach to bartending.
“We don’t carry a lot of well brands or domestic beers. We want people to try something new and different. We prepare exciting cocktails and have an extensive selection of craft beers. We want our beverages to create an expectation for the food to come,” he said.
“I want to see food and food service pushed to a higher level. More care, more thought, more choices in the food we’re given and what we choose, Seni said. “I crave new food experiences. We always try to put out the best version of that dish every time we serve it.