Arriving in the United States in the 1980s, the Senegalese Pierre Thiam was one of the pioneers of African cuisine in the country to become, today, an essential figure in the American gastronomic scene through his restaurants and his multiple works . From New York to California, via Texas, Thiam brings West African cuisine to plates, and attempts a crazy bet: putting fonio, a seed grown in this region of the world, on the map of the world of gastronomy.
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From our correspondent in New York,
New York, late 1980s. Pierre Thiam, a young physics-chemistry student at the Cheick Anta Diop University in Dakar, decided to cross the Atlantic to continue his studies, and landed in the “Big Apple”. He is looking for a job to support himself, but has no idea that it will change his life forever. “ I quickly found work in a restaurant where I was washing dishes. But one day, I became interested in the cooking part, and I pushed myself to make sauces, to help out. My career in catering started like this », he still smiles today.
He learned quickly and found himself one day in an Italian restaurant in New York where he spent his free time cooking mafé and other dishes from his childhood, which attracted the curiosity of the restaurant staff, who asked the young Senegalese about their prepare African dishes for team meals preceding services. “ I wasn’t a trained cook, so I was constantly calling my mother for recipe advice. And the staff liked it so much that a few weeks later, some of my dishes were included in the restaurant’s menu! “, he laughs, “ I felt that African cuisine was unknown in the United States. So I decided to give myself body and soul to give more exposure to our West African gastronomy “.
His name began to circulate in the industry, and Thiam quickly became an assistant, then head chef, after having conquered the palates of dozens of connoisseurs. He works in some of the city’s best establishments: Garvin’sbut also at Boom, the fashionable restaurant where Madonna and all the big celebrities of the moment go, from the famous chef Geoffrey Murray, who takes him under his wing. Thiam moved up a gear and decided, in 2001, to embark on his personal adventure. “ I decided to open my first restaurant in Brooklyn, Yolelewhere we offered West African dishes and American cuisine, then I opened a second restaurant, The Great Dakar, several years later. I wanted us to give better visibility and better recognition to the cuisine of this part of the world, and it quickly took off “, he recalls. He is invited on several television sets, carries out interviews and recipes for the gastronomy pages of the New York Timesof New Yorker and other major American magazines, then wrote his first recipe book in 2008: Yolélé, recipes from the heart of Senegal.
Yolélé, the fonio bet
Thiam continues his rise in the world of gastronomy on this side of the Atlantic, with the release of new recipe books, including the latest, Simply West African, available since mid-September, and is gradually bringing African dishes to American tables. “ The bet was bold, but people quickly liked the dishes and opened up to different flavors, tastes and ingredients that were unfamiliar to them. Cuisine is also and above all a cultural experience, and I am happy to contribute to better recognition of African cuisine here “, he specifies. He cooks for greats of this world, Ban Ki-moon, but also Bill and Melinda Gates, who adore his creations.
The Thiam empire continues to expand, with his appointment as executive chef in the restaurant of the Pullman Hotel in Dakar, and the opening of Nok by Alarain Lagos, Nigeria, but also Terangathe restaurant of African Center, the museum of African cultures in New York. He participates in numerous conferences on African cuisines, collaborates with a number of chefs who want to learn about the continent’s specialties and speaks in several TED Talks, mainly on the subject of the environment and the present and future importance of food from Africa. “ I never thought I would become such an important figure in showcasing African cuisines in the United Stateshe smiles. But I must do everything to put Africa on the world gastronomy map. »
In 2017, he decided to launch Yolele! with Philip Teverow – the man who allowed quinoa to find a place of choice in the world’s diet –, a company which produces ready meals and snacks based on fonio, this seed cultivated and used for more than a century in West Africa. Jollof, but also mafé and spicy chips, the brand is becoming more and more well-known and can be found on the shelves of major American brands such as Whole Foods And Amazon. “ It was a project that had been close to my heart for a long time, because I wanted to develop a project with this seed that is so well known in my region of birth, with nutritional virtues and which promotes agriculture and sustainable development. “, he emphasizes. “ We work with local farmers in Senegal, because I want the brand to have a positive impact on people and on the planet. It is a collective project that aims to be sustainable and create jobs. »
Thiam does not intend to stop there. “ We are collaborating with the major beer brand Brooklyn Brewery, and we released a fonio beer, and we are talking with a major European brewer who would also like to release a fonio beer. Ideas are not lacking. We want to continue to put West Africa, through fonio among others, on the global food map. », he concludes.