Growing up in the vibrant streets of Dakar, Chef Pierre Thiam grew to love and appreciate West African food. His lifelong passion for food lead him to abandon the world of science for a laboratory of another kind—the kitchen. In 2004, Thiam opened the popular Brooklyn restaurant Le Grand Dakar. Although the establishment has since closed, in its seven years of operation, Thiam introduced New Yorkers to the delectable tastes of his homeland. In the last decade, he has not only authored an internationally renowned cookbook, Yolele!, which spotlights Senegalese cuisine, but has also started his own catering company, Pierre Thiam Catering. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Chef Thiam about the fundamentals of African cuisine, his career in the fast-paced New York restaurant scene, and new adventures on the horizon.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal. When I left Senegal in the late 80s, I was a physics and chemistry student at Cheikh Anta Diop University. My goal was to continue my studies in that field but I stumbled into cooking while in NY (my first job was in a restaurant).
When did you develop a passion for food and how did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
The passion was always in me. I am from a family of food lovers. My mother and my aunts were great cooks but it’s only when I came to NY that I realized that cooking was an option for me (in Senegal, cooking was mostly a gender-based activity). The chef who I was working under at that first restaurant gave me a chance and I never looked back.
How and when did you decide to start Le Grand Dakar and Yolele? Was there any difference between the cuisine of the two restaurants? What factors lead to their closure?
Before opening the restaurants, I first started a catering business called Sage, serving a contemporary West African cuisine to a diverse NY clientele. It led to Yolele, my first restaurant, which was an African bistro concept located in the heart of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. At the time, it was a pioneering concept and I had to deal with the growing pains of a changing neighborhood. The concept and the food was an instant hit with the media (New York Times, New York Magazine, New York Daily News, etc.) but Brooklyn was not yet the hipsters’ place that it has become today.
Le Grand Dakar’s story is also similar although it lasted longer, eight years as opposed to four (a lifetime in NY restaurant scene). The block where it opened was called the shooting alley (frequent gun shots and drug activities). A few years later other businesses opened and the area got gentrified, consequently, the rent got higher (your typical story).
Why did you decide to produce a cookbook?
For the same reasons that motivated me to open the restaurants and start the catering. I lived in NY, the food capital of the world, and Africa’s presence was almost nonexistent. I thought that it was important that Africa be represented simply because we have great food! Cookbooks are important cultural artifacts. My book, Yolele! Recipes From The Heart Of Senegal was well-received (finalist of the Julia Child Award and recipient of the special Jury Award at the Paris Gourmand World Cookbook Award). I am presently writing another book with the same publisher (Lake Isle Press), that’s due to come out next spring.
How do you think Senegalese cuisine compares to other African cuisines? Is there any other African country or region that you think also produces delicious food?
There are lots of great African cuisines! Nigeria, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, and Togo are amazing culinary destinations. There is a great diversity of ingredients and therefore, the potential of those cuisines is enormous.
As a matter of fact, West Africa influenced many of the great cuisines of the Americas (from Louisiana to Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, etc…). Other parts of Africa also have great food, i.e. Moroccan and Ethiopia.
How vibrant is the Senegalese community in New York?
It’s a vibrant community with lots of small businesses particularly in Harlem and Brooklyn.
Which ingredients do you tend to incorporate most into your cooking?
I love fresh, seasonal ingredients. The freshness makes all the difference in a dish. However, I also love to use fermented African ingredients and spices such as dried fish, fermented conch, and dawadawa…these flavors, used with moderation, bring out the uniqueness of our cuisine.
What dish would you recommend for someone who is being introduced to Senegalese cuisine for the first time?
I would probably recommend our national dish, the Thiebou Jenn. It’s red rice, cooked in a flavorful tomato broth (similar to Jollof rice) and served with fish stuffed with a spiced parsley mixture and root vegetables. It’s always a hit!
Can you share one of your favorite recipes with our readers?
Here’s one for green mango compote.