ALAMEDA -- You could always count on two things when you had a meal at chef Soleil Banguid's restaurant, Soleil's African Cuisine at the Frog and Fiddle bar on Webster Street: One, the chef himself would greet you with a smile and a handshake if crowds weren't too thick, and two, Banguid never cooked when tempers flared.
Banguid died suddenly March 7 of a hemorrhaging stroke. He had just turned 45 on Feb. 16. Banguid was born in Brazzaville, the largest city in the Republic of Congo, to a polygamist father and a mother who had 14 children. He started cooking for his large family when his mom asked him into the kitchen at the age of 10.
While his friends and brothers played soccer, Banguid learned his mother's recipes, many of which made up his menu at the restaurant and were among his catering and farmers market offerings. As an adult, Banguid practiced the divine principles of cooking.
"He should be known for his spirituality," Banguid's wife, TJ Toche, said. "He never cooked while angry."
Banguid moved to the United States about 20 years ago, settling in Iowa for 12 years, where he worked as a dishwasher, cook and sous chef in major restaurants around Iowa City. He moved to the Bay Area eight years ago for a change in his environment, Toche said.
He worked at a variety of restaurants while he built a farmers market presence, cooking up beignets and African offerings. In December 2011, Banguid and Toche opened Soleil's African Cuisine in a rented kitchen at the Frog and Fiddle bar. His restaurant offered tastings of Ethiopia and North Africa as well as dishes from Central and West Africa. Shortly after opening, the restaurant gained a healthy reputation, and people came from as far as Carmel to try his ndole, the national dish of Cameroon, marked by bitter leaf, spinach and raw peanuts, and saka-saka, a dish made with cassava leaves, which is especially popular in the Congo. His goat stew was one of the most ordered entrees at Soleil's African Cuisine.
"We'd have lots of regulars that came from Berkeley and Oakland," said Jamie Michaels, a bartender at Frog and Fiddle. "There were parties that came in from Napa and Sonoma. There were African families and Asian families."
Banguid always stayed calm in the kitchen, even if things were slammed, Michaels said, and he would make a point to come out to the dining room to talk to his customers if the kitchen wasn't too busy.
"He would come and greet almost every human being that came into the restaurant to eat there," Michaels said. "It was the face-to-face thing that he wanted. He would always say, 'I love people, and people love me.' "
Banguid and his wife met when Toche came to the Tropic of Paradise restaurant in Berkeley, where Banguid was working as chef a little more than eight years ago. He called her every day for 30 days until she agreed to go out with him. They were married a short time later.
Together, Banguid and Toche ran not only the restaurant but a catering business, often staying up very late to close the restaurant and then cook for catering clients.
"Our days started early and ended late, and sometimes even later we had to cook the next day for catering clients," Toche said. "There was always something going on."
Banguid's favorite meal was fufu, a starchy, doughlike staple of Africa that is dipped into different sauces. He played the drums and always drummed at farmers markets he attended in Oakland, Alameda, Hayward and San Francisco. He loved basketball and Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and watched "Mission: Impossible" every chance he got, Toche said.
"And he loved anything James Bond," she said. "If it comes out, we had to watch it the same day."
Banguid leaves behind two daughters, Prudence and Divine Banguid. His funeral service will be held at noon Saturday at New Bridges Presbyterian Church, 26236 Adrian Ave., Hayward.
Toche said Banguid trained three sous chefs, all who know how to cook his specialties. She said the restaurant will open in the future but likely not in the same location. Banguid was also developing a line of African cuisine to be sold at Whole Foods Market, which Toche plans to continue to design. She said Banguid always wanted her to publish his recipes in books, and she vows to do so in his honor.
"He always believed in the impossible," she said. "He was always dreaming."