Snapshots on Africa: food, customs, styles, business and more.
Pierre Thiam, African Iron Chef in New York
We met Pierre Thiam about ten years ago in Brooklyn, when he was planning two eateries almost simultaneously. Since then, he has not stood still. He competed against Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, wrote a cookbook, helped put together a festival of African cuisine in Dakar, and much more. I asked him a few questions about the road he travelled.
Chef Thiam, photo courtesy Simran Jaising
What is your background--where were you born, raised, in what languages? I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal. The official language is French but in Senegal, everyone speaks Wolof. My mother is from the south of Senegal, where Portuguese Creole is spoken, and she taught me this language, so I grew up speaking these three languages.
Grilled Chicken Yassa with Lime and Onion Confit Over Jasmine Rice, inspired bya typical Senegalese dish
Photo: Adam Bartos
When did you decide that you wanted to be a chef, that you loved cooking? How and where did you train?
I never thought being a chef was an option because I am from a culture where the kitchen is a gender based activity, reserved for women. I was a physics and chemistry student. However, when I came to NY in the late eighties to finish my studies, my first job was coincidentally in a restaurant. I realized that food was my true calling while working there. Even though cooking wasn't an option when I was growing up, my family always took food matters very seriously. My mom prepared elaborate meals and she was often experimenting in her cooking. When it became clear to me that this was what I really wanted to do, I apprenticed at several restaurants, learning on the job and moving through different stations in the kitchen. By the mid 1990s, I was Sous Chef at a popular restaurant in Soho.
What was your trajectory in the United States? Any lessons learned, or regrets, successes, achievements you are especially proud of?
My first kitchen experience was working at "Garvins" as a dishwasher first, then as a prep cook. Later, I was hired as a salad chef and garde manger, before being promoted to the grill. Several years later, I was a saucier and line cook at "Jean Claude" Bistro (also in Soho). At "Boom" in 1992, I joined the team of executive chef Geoffrey Murray, which was specialized in global ethnic cuisine. After several years, Boom's team opened a branch in South Beach Miami and I was sent there as the chef de cuisine.
Flyer, Grand Avenue Block Party, 2010
Later, we opened an avant-garde African themed restaurant named Two Rooms in midtown Manhattan. After Two Rooms along with longtime friends in Brooklyn, we opened Yolele, an African inspired bistro on Fulton Street. Unfortunately, the partnership faltered and we closed after a couple of years. I also opened Le Grand Dakar, my second restaurant serving contemporary West African cuisine in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. I closed it after a seven year run. My restaurants served as cultural centers, introducing African arts, and live music.
Photo: Evan Sung
What are your current activities?
I am renting a kitchen in Harlem that serves as a base for a line of products I am developing. I also run my catering business from the Harlem kitchen. I consult for 2 restaurants, one of which is opening this summer and another one next year. I travel frequently: last year alone I prepared a dinner in Cuba for the Havana Biennial, and spent 10 days traveling around south Africa for a consulting job.
I've been lecturing around Africa for the need to promote our culinary tradition and ingredients. I received the Responsible Tourism Award at the African Travel Association (ATA) world congress in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. More recently, I partnered with the Senegalese Ministry of Trade to organize AfroEats, an international food festival in Dakar. I traveled with chefs from the United States, France, Cameroon, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Mexico, for a culinary tour of Senegalese cuisine. In Dakar, the chefs met with nutritionists and food entrepreneurs; for 5 days we were educated on the virtues of eating local African food. In a way, I play an unofficial role of ambassador of African cuisine.
Another proud achievement is my cookbook "Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal" which was a finalist of the Julia Child Award and received the Jury Prize in Paris for the World Gourmand Award.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to still spread the gospel of our cuisine while having fun. I am writing a new book. This summer, I am partnering with a charity called Mama Hope and we will open a Pop Up restaurant on Mount Kilimanjaro.
On Friday and mostly on Saturday, April 13-14, 2012, Columbia University's School of International Policy held the 9th Annual African Economic Forum. Nick Tattersall, Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism at Columbia University, introduced t he first keynote speaker: Sanusi Lamido Sanusi , Governor of Nigeria's Central Bank. Mr. Sanusi hails from Northern Nigeria; on Wikipedia , he is called "Mallam" (" learned " or "teacher," from the Arabic language), as he is also an Islamic scholar---probably a rarity in the banking world! He spoke softly (a little too softly for some of us, as the microphones were not working too well on the first day of the Forum) and couched his words carefully; however, his goals for Africa in general, and Nigeria in particular were quite clear: self-sufficiency leading to prosperity, and independence from foreign economic interests. I cannot, of course, provide here the full speech; howev
In various parts of Africa, there are informal organizations, called "tontine," in French-speaking Cameroon. I looked up “tontine” in the English-language Wikipedia , and the definition is not the same; however, there is a link to the word “ likelamba ,” which describes the everyday African tontine. Two types of tontines The usual system is that all the members of a tontine—usually tontines are all-male or all-female—contribute a set amount of money every month to a common “pot,” and every month a different person takes the entire sum, usually to take care of a large expense they couldn't otherwise afford: tuition for a child, household equipment, etc. It is very difficult to save money in Sub-Saharan Africa for all but a fortunate few. Everyday needs are pressing, and there is never enough money; even if there is, a family member may have an urgent need, and there goes any money that was left over! In Cameroon, there is yet another tontine system, called the "
Ndolé with fried plantains Food in tropical Africa, as everywhere in the world, is mainly made with local products. Notable exceptions: tomatoes have become a staple, after being imported by the Europeans who had themselves imported them from South America. Tomatoes are not quite as ubiquitous as in southern Italy, but are the go-to item for sauces when a cook is in a crunch. Another import is salt cod, also known in the Americas as Bacalao . Cooked with what else... tomato sauce! Onions are also very popular, and I don’t think they are originally from the African continent. Ndolé plant Food, traditionally, is cooked. Well cooked. Salads used to be an unknown entity, and older people still call it “goat’s food.” Raw, or insufficiently cooked, would have been—and may still be—dangerous, in the hot and humid equatorial climate, where bacteria thrive, as it is never cold. Snow is a completely unknown entity. Even after a third of his life spent in temperate climates, my hus