Dedicated Jan Plan instructor opens West African restaurant

It hits me right as I walk in. Mé Lon Togo may be closed for the morning, but it by no means feels empty. The late afternoon sun beaming in through the tall windows mixes with the music lightly drifting out of the speaker system, forming an atmosphere that I don’t feel enough anymore: a homely one. 

Listening to Mé Lon Togo owner and executive chef Jordan Benissan in an interview with the Echo, it becomes clear that the warmth I feel walking into his restaurant is a direct result of the path that lead to its inception. As he explains, the driving force behind his venture was born when he “missed home cooking. I started cooking for myself you know… I tried to cook meals I ate at home back in Togo, West Africa.” 

Soon, Benissan was cooking those meals for his friends at small dinner parties. After those parties grew, he began to see the possibility of opening a restaurant as a logical progression of his culinary journey. Three years ago, he found a space on the coast in Searsport that he fell in love with. Benissan opened the original Mé Lon Togo there and was thrilled with his customers’ enthusiasm for African story and culture. 

For two years, Benissan hosted travellers from all around New England, providing his patrons with an unrivalled and authentic experience. However, for the seaside restaurant’s owner, part of the experience that he craved was missing.

Benissan has been teaching at the College for nearly 20 years. It’s what first brought him to the Waterville area, as well as what has kept him here. 

Benissan speaks fondly of his connection to the College’s community, noting that he feels that his presence has made a significant impact on the College and Waterville at large. In that vein, he is most proud of his African Drumming Jan Plan course, as it serves to brighten the moods of both students and Waterville residents during the January freeze with performances of traditional African music. He reflected that “to know that I am doing something that really helps people in that way, you know, I feel really humbled.” 

So, while Benissan valued his restauranat’s Searsport location, he recognized its isolation from the community in Waterville that he had invested much of his time into. Pausing a moment to reflect about that community, he noted, “You know I feel… at my level like an obligation and a commitment [to the community]…It brings purpose and meaning to my life.” That altruistic sentiment brought Mé Lon Togo to Main Street in Waterville, where Bennissan can properly share his food with the people he cares so much about.

Benissan presents Mé Lon Togo as a unique dining experience in Waterville. In a town saturated with fast food chains, he offers fine-dining four course meals. As he confidently stated, Benissan “realize[s] that students sometimes, after eating for many months on campus, get tired of the dining hall food they eat. They get really excited when they get the opportunity to eat a home cooked meal.” 

Boldly, Mé Lon Togo attempts to satisfy this appetite for nostalgia while also introducing students to completely new flavors and dishes. Benissan’s West African chicken in peanut sauce is comprised of ingredients that many students are intimately familiar with. However, those ingredients are combined in a manner that is tantalizingly foreign. The dish is homey in the heart that goes into it, yet exotic in its final composition.

Benissan has given students and Waterville residents the opportunity to go home without leaving Waterville, to try something entirely new while simultaneously feeling nostalgic. He has invested his life into this community. I say it is time we invest in him. 

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