Chef Pierre Thiam spent his childhood in the cosmopolitan city of Dakar, Senegal — rich in a culinary heritage inspired by Senegalese, Moroccan, Vietnamese and French traditions — and the rural countryside, where he learned the rustic cooking practices of his homeland from the cooks most revered in his nation, its women.
He carried his passion for food with him to New York City in 1987 where he worked in some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants before opening up his own restaurants specializing in African cuisine, Yolele and Le Grand Dakar. His book “Yolele! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal” explores his story. Today he runs his own catering company, serves as a personal chef and is about to launch an organization with a mission to bring American chefs to Africa to train aspiring cooks.
In the following interview, Pierre shares what makes his nation’s culinary heritage unique and explains the meaning of taranga.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
I arrived in New York coming from Senegal as a student on my way to Ohio to attend university. When I arrived, all of my money was stolen and I was in desperate times. I didn’t even have enough to get myself to Ohio. A friend found me a job as a dishwasher in the kitchen he was working in, and I planned to just earn enough to get myself to Ohio. But when I walked into that kitchen, I couldn’t believe it. I used to pore over my mother’s cookbooks when I was a boy. “Larousse Gastronomique” was my favorite, and when I walked into the kitchen, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought all of those things they talked about in the cookbook did not exist, but there they were, right in front of me. I stopped thinking about going to Ohio right then and there.
Tell me more about Senegal’s rich culinary heritage.
It’s the most western point of Africa, which means that all of the boats that arrive in Africa would naturally enter in Senegal. The colonizers, explorers, all these different cultures arrived in Senegal for hundreds of years and, of course, people travel with their food and they therefore brought that food culture to Senegal. We had the French Colonial influence in the past, they’ve been in Senegal for 500-plus years, and had a major impact on the cuisine. We have the Portuguese in the south. We also have a large Vietnamese community who shared their traditions with the Senegalese people. All this makes it a very interesting food culture, especially when combined with our native ingredients and the seafood available to us.
The Senegalese traditionally eat seated on the floor from a communal bowl. What is the bowl’s significance?
In Senegal, it’s not unusual to be invited to a stranger’s house for a meal. When the mother cooks, she always keeps in mind the unexpected guest that might arrive at the table. There’s a belief that eating around the bowl means there’s always enough food for everyone rather than eating on individual plates. Eating from the bowl teaches children values. One of them is that once you have food in your mouth you have to wait for the next portion until everyone else is ready before putting your hand back in the bowl. This teaches you to be patient.
When you reach into the bowl with your hand, you have to eat from the section right in front of you. You cannot reach over to the other side. You can’t eat from the middle of the bowl. That’s where all the meat and vegetables are kept. That section is for the mother. As you eat, she regularly distributes what’s at the center of the bowl to everyone eating from it, so that each person receives an equal portion. Therefore, sharing is another value learned from the bowl.
The relationship between the Muslim and Christian people of Senegal has a reputation for being more peaceful than in any other parts of the world. Why do you believe this is so?
It’s a tradition in Senegal during the Muslim holidays to bring food to the Christian families in your neighborhood. And the Christians do the same during their holidays. This exchange is very much a part of who the Senegalese are. It’s a very tolerant and open country, and I believe this sharing of culinary traditions is a big part of the reason why.
What is taranga?
We have beautiful beaches in Senegal, we have amazing food, but it’s the people that make Senegal so special. Taranga means hospitality. It’s probably the most important symbol in Senegal. Embracing taranga for the Senegalese equates to your success in life. You are taught early on to be hospitable, to be generous, to be sharing, to be grateful, to embrace others. This equates to the cooking. I would tell people to come to Senegal not for the sights, but for taranga.
Peanut and Vegetable Stew (Vegetable Mafe)
- Heat the oil in a large pot. Add half the onions and half the garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent.
- Dilute the tomato paste in ¼ cup of the vegetable stock and add it to the saucepan. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon until it thickens, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add remaining stock and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Add the carrots, tubers and bay leaf, and cook until the carrots and tubers are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the Brussels sprouts in the last 10 minutes of the cooking process.
- Remove 1 cup of the broth and combine with the peanut butter in a bowl. Whisk until incorporated. Add to the pot along with the habañero pepper and remaining onions and garlic. Return to a boil then reduce heat to a rolling simmer until the broth has thickened to desired consistency.
- Add the okra and cook for 10 more minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper. Serve with rice or the starchy Western African paste fufu.
Zester Daily contributor Jody Eddy is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan and former executive editor of Art Culinaire magazine. She cooked at restaurants in America and Europe including Jean Georges, Tabla and The Fat Duck in Bray, England. Her book, “Restaurant Staff Meals: The Food That Fuels the World’s Best Kitchens” will be released this fall and she is writing a cookbook with the Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gislason, one of Iceland’s most celebrated practitioners of New Nordic Cuisine.
Photo: Chef Pierre Thiam. Credit: Jody Eddy