Chef Pierre Thiam is shining a light on a cuisine that has been overlooked for too long: West African cuisine. Born and raised in Dakar, the bustling capital of Senegal, Thiam brought his food heritage to the United States. He has restaurants, cookbooks, and a food company–Yolélé–that revolve around West African eats.
I first encountered Chef Pierre Thiam’s work while visiting his restaurant, Teranga, in Harlem. The eatery not only touts a menu filled with diverse West African foods, but it is also bursting with art and books from the continent. Thiam’s cookbooks were on display, and the beautiful photos from Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl caught my eye. I am excited to cook through this book and experience Senegalese cuisine from Thiam’s perspective.
I was fortunate enough to chat with Chef Pierre Thiam. His extensive knowledge of not only West African food, but how it relates to the rest of the world, was astonishing. I learned so much from our conversation. It made me even more excited to explore food and culture from a diasporic lens. Chef Pierre Thiam, thank you for all you are doing for the culture!
An Interview with Chef Pierre Thiam
When did you start cooking, and what made you fall in love with it?
I officially started cooking in 1989. I was born in Senegal and studied physics and chemistry in university. There was a student movement and they closed the school system because of strikes. Because of this, I came to the United States on a student visa to finish my degree in Ohio. However, when I arrived in the U.S., I flew into New York City and never left. I needed a job so I started working in restaurants as a busboy.
This opened up a world of cooking for me. In Senegal, we have a rich food culture, but cooking belongs to women. In NYC, the restaurant kitchen was filled with men and built on camaraderie. It was fascinating to see guys cooking.
The chef liked hanging out with me in order to practice his French. He knew my goal was to make money to continue my education, so he suggested that I take more shifts in the kitchen. I would finish my hours as a busboy and start my shift as a dishwasher. Then I started peeling and chopping vegetables. I chopped until I graduated from being a prep cook and worked my way up over the years.
I viewed cooking as a form of chemistry. All of the reactions in the kitchen were things I could connect with based on my chemistry background. I started to read the French classics on cooking. I worked in Italian restaurants and at a French bistro, but it was another restaurant in SoHo that changed everything for me.
The chef focused on global ethnic cuisine, Southeast Asian food in particular. I love those flavors. In Senegal, we have a Vietnamese population [due to shared history as French colonies]. Growing up in Senegal, my Vietnamese godfather was the only man I ever saw cooking.
You mention growing up in Dakar, Senegal. How did that cuisine shape you as a chef?
While working at the restaurant, I was sent to Miami to open a new sister restaurant as chef de cuisine. That experience inspired me to start tapping into West African flavors. When I was back in NYC, I would make West African family meals before service. The staff loved the [Senegalese] peanut sauce and braised chicken. The restaurant ended up putting these dishes on the menu as specials.
I was inspired by the memory of dishes I remembered eating growing up and would call my mom for recipes. All of this made me focus on bringing flavors from my heritage to my cooking. NYC has so many different types of food, but I did not see West African cuisine.
What would you say is Senegal’s national dish?
Thieboudienne. Jollof rice began in different regions through rice. [Senegal’s version] starts with a spice mixture, parsley, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper, and fish. You prepare the broth with tomato, onion, fermented locust beans (dawa dawa) or fish sauce. It is very pungent, just a few drops add to the flavor. You cook root vegetables in the same broth, so then you have a fish stock with vegetables and fermented broth. The rice is cooked in the same broth.
You serve the fish next to the vegetables and fragrant red rice. It looks like paella but has more flavor. [Interestingly enough] when Spain was occupied by the Moors, the Moorish Empire extended all the way down to Morocco and Mauritania. The Moors brought rice cultivation to Valencia [Spain] in the 1600s. The only dish from Spain that is eaten around the world is paella.
Having been in the United States for so long, how do you perceive West African cuisine?
I look at the cuisine with much reverence because it is the source of my inspiration. It does not get enough credit. It influenced the Americas through the Middle Passage. West African cuisine is resilient. It is constantly reinventing itself in creative ways.
Gumbo is the same as okra soup in Senegal and Nigeria. Rice and peas in Jamaica, [Cuban] Moros y Cristianos, and [Dirik ak Pwa] in Haiti are the same recipes. Feijoada is Brazil’s version of rice and beans.
Rice arrived in America due to the Middle Passage. There is Asian rice and then there is African rice. African rice is what we grow in America. During slavery, Europeans targeted Africans from regions that knew rice. They were taken to the Carolinas. The enslavers did not know how to grow rice. That was something that Africans brought.
Mexican tamales in Veracruz [a region home to Afro-Mexicans], which are wrapped in banana leaves, [resemble] Nigerian Moin Moin and Senegambian Abala. Senegambia refers to both Senegal and Gambia, which was one Wolof-speaking region until the colonists divided it. In Bahia, Brazil, they [call the same food] amala.
I have so much respect for this cuisine. It is filled with great, bold flavors. It is nutritious. It is about community and helped us survive the hardest moments in society. It nurtured us. We eat together. The concept of Senegalese teranga means “highest value hospitality”. This concept of offering food mirrors the American idea of Southern hospitality. We need to honor that.
You founded Yolélé Foods, a company known for selling fonio, a West African grain. Can you talk about the importance of this company as well as what fonio represents?
My idea was to give back to the food culture that has given me so much. I wanted to open markets for crops that are disappearing due to their lack of utilization. Thousands of crops have already disappeared as corn, wheat, rice, and soy crops are imposed upon us. This agricultural monoculture has pretty much depleted the soil in the Americas.
There is also abuse of chemicals, fertilizers, and water. 70% of potable water on the planet is used for growing food. We need to think about how we are going to feed people without destroying the planet. [We have to think about] sustainability. Fonio is a drought resistant crop that grows in the Sahel, from Senegal to the Indian Ocean. It is a resilient crop that requires very little water. Dispatch the seed and it grows in two months. They call it the lazy farmers crop because it is so easy to grow. It is gluten free and rich in amino acids.
And yet, the farmers growing it are some of the poorest in the world. I want to open up economic opportunities. Make consumers open to diversifying their diets. Our limited diet is causing health issues. We are eating crops that have not been grown healthily and are GMOs. There are chronic diseases related to our food system: diabetes, obesity, hypertension, high blood pressure.
Yolele’s mission is to introduce underutilized crops and support farmers. When we started in 2017, we were in one Whole Foods in Harlem. Now we are in all Whole Foods, thousands of health food stores, Amazon, and FreshDirect.
People are loving it. It is nutritious. A great alternative grain, diverse, and it cooks in 5 minutes. Our fonio pilafs are inspired by the cuisines of West Africa. It’s all about nutritious, healthy, and fresh flavors.
You are also the chef and co-owner of Teranga, which opened in 2019 under your restaurant group Ingrained Hospitality Concepts, LLC. What influenced you to open a West African inspired fast casual chain in New York City?
Teranga is a continuation of Yolélé Foods. People can try the grains there. Because it is fast casual, people come without being intimidated by hearing “African”. We have fonio. Liberian red rice. Attieke, which is fermented cassava. We have a leafy sauce with fermented locust beans. We use kale here, but in Nigeria we use amaranth leaves.
Teranga is inspired by West Africa. The crops are West African. It is an educational platform. You can make your own bowls. The community has been amazing, embracing, and very supportive. During the pandemic we have served first responders in hospitals near us. We collaborate with Harlem Grown to feed kids living in shelters, serving them nutritious West African food. Some are familiar with the cuisine, but for others it is a new experience.
[We started Teranga in Harlem and] opened a second Teranga location in Brooklyn in the middle of the pandemic. We want to scale to different locations.
Are you working on any projects now that you would like to share?
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult, I live by the following mantra: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It has been a catalyst for my partner Lisa and I to expand our mission through collaborations.
We are working with Super Bowl Champion and humanitarian Michael Bennett. He has a foundation, The Bennett Foundation, focused on the African-American community. We are in the early stages of collaborating and tackling issues like food deserts.
I also founded the L+P Foundation with Lisa, which is dedicated to cultivating more chefs focused on cooking innovative West African cuisine—and to provide culinary education to young aspiring chefs from across the globe.
We are starting off with two initiatives: 1) A curriculum for aspiring chefs who want to be trained in African traditional and fusion cooking; and 2) A high-end dinner series for our strongest allies and advocates.
We are launching a program with the Culinary Institute of America, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, and other chefs from the Diaspora to include this cuisine in CIA’s curriculum. We are currently accepting donations toward the L+P Foundation.
Follow Chef Pierre Thiam for updates @chefpierrethiam.