Renowned Senegalese chef, Pierre Thiam has been cooking for hungry New Yorkers and homesick Africans for decades.
Pierre grew up in Dakar but moved to New York in the eighties. He rose to prominence working at many exclusive venues and then opened two restaurants in Brooklyn: an African bistro in called Yolele in 2000 and Grand-Dakar Restaurant in 2004. His cuisine explores ‘contemporary interpretations of ethnic flavours’ from across Africa, but particularly, Senegal.
Pierre now runs a catering company called Pierre Thiam Catering, hosting and catering around the world for events such as 1:54 Art Fair where I interviewed him. He is also the author of cookbooks including SENEGAL.
He talks about his passion for cooking, the influence of West African food around the world, and once and for all, which country wins the jollof contest.
Tell us about when you discovered your passion for culinary arts.
I’m from Senegal so food is something we take seriously. I had my passion early on because everyone is passionate about food where I am from. But as a boy I couldn’t really access the kitchen; it was a gender-based activity in Senegal so I made it a career when I moved to New York a couple decades ago. It became evident that it [cooking] was more than just a passion, it was my life.
In New York did you realise that people were receptive to trying food from West Africa?
Yes, absolutely. West Africa is in New York. New Yorkers are very curious especially when it comes to food. They are very curious to discover new flavours and new frontiers. This is something I’ve always known about New York. This is why I came to New York – I came to see the world.
Senegal is African food and African food was not quite known at the time I opened my restaurant so it became something of a pioneer. I was in Brooklyn. I was surprised by the reception from all levels from the critics to the clientele from the neighbourhood.
Who are some famous people you’ve served?
The ‘founding father of African cinema’ Ousmane Sembéne used to hang out at the restaurant whenever he was in New York; that was his spot. Prior to opening my own restaurant I worked in other restaurants and became chef at a restaurant in Soho where famous people hung out. We had quite a few of them come in – Lenny Kravitz was a fixture definitely.
He would come in the kitchen and hang out. We had David Bowie – he had a party there. I could go on, it was the spot in Soho in the 90s. The Senegalese restaurant – it was really a contemporary West African restaurant – was a continuation of that restaurant in Soho.
You’ve travelled extensively around the world. So outside of Senegal what food from other cultures do you like?
So many cultures have great food. Africa in particular; in spending time in Nigeria I enjoyed the food quite well. I enjoyed the balance and the ingredients used. But I manage to find food I enjoy everywhere pretty much.
I enjoy Ethiopian, I enjoy Zimbabwean food. Outside of Africa it’s the classics; Italian, French. I’m very diplomatic in my answer. But I particularly like African food. I like bold flavours in my cuisine. Not only bold but it’s nutritious and inviting – there’s a warmness to our food. It’s like our personality.
I was waiting for you to mention Sierra Leone!
Sierra Leone, no it should be on the list! The thing is Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal and Liberia, they have so many similarities in their flavours so when I talk about one cuisine it’s really just that kind of flavour. We have a way of using particular ingredients like you have ground peanuts and greens and sweet potatoes, it’s all those things. So Sierra Leone, even though they claim to own jollof rice.
Recently there was a debate on social media of whose jollof is better – Ghana or Nigeria. So Chef Pierre settle this once and for all. Who has the best jollof rice?
I’m going to have so many enemies, man. Food is really an art form so it depends on preferences. Everything you judge is your own experience. You can decide Nigerian is best because you grew up eating it. Nigerians like their jollof to have a certain flavour – they like a burnt taste to it you know.
Some people may find it off-putting. I like the spiciness of the Ghanaian jollof. Sierra Leone should be in that mix too. But honestly to settle that debate once and for all, as a Senegalese chef, you know Senegal is the originator of jollof – the Wolof people are the originator of jollof rice.
So Senegal deserves the title?
Senegal owns the title! But food is something that transcends borders. That’s the unifying factor to what we have as humans, as Africans. You see jollof in Nigeria and Senegal and everyone embraces it. Same like peanut sauce and many others. In Nigeria the moi moi became tamales in Mexico.
So many ingredients in Mexico didn’t exist before the slaves arrived. Rice didn’t exist before the slaves arrived. You go to Veracruz they still make tamales the way they do in Nigeria – it’s banana leaves they use the same ingredients. That’s the black population that makes it. So food transcends borders.
You were in Cuba a few years ago. Would you say the food culture is the same as in West Africa?
Yes, it’s there. It’s just so obvious and I think that’s a great project for anthropologists to see the connection throughout the diaspora. The thing that we brought was the food and the music as well. You go to Esmeraldas, a completely African area of Ecuador. The food is the same. The sauce you eat with it is the same as in Guinea. It’s amazing. Why should we eat anything else? Our food is good. The borders – Sierra Leone, Nigeria – they are artificial, they are inventions.
Do you ever want to take a break from cooking and have someone cook for you?
I do that quite often, actually. I still enjoy cooking quite a lot. Since I closed the restaurant it’s been a much different life. I travel for food but not always cooking.
I do cooking classes and lecture because people always want to know about food from Africa. It’s this big unknown. Our food also has lots of superfoods. African cuisine is the most balanced diet in the world and it’s recognised now so people are more and more into hearing about it.
How do you feel when people like Dr. Oz say they ‘discovered’ the health benefits of foods like palm oil when as Africans we’ve known this for thousands of years?
It’s hilarious but it’s a great feeling too. It’s about time that our ingredients are recognised. How can you discover something that’s been around thousands of years? But still give him credit for giving it a platform, this ingredient that’s been demonised. The product was so good it was overexploited. Forests were destroyed and orangutan population were decimated. That’s true but the product itself has nothing to do with it – that’s human greed.
For us consumers, particularly chefs, we should be careful where we source our palm oil. This is what I talk about in my book. The palm oil I use is mostly from this area in south Senegal where it’s harvested the natural way, producing the tastiest palm oil you’ve ever had. But thanks to Dr. Oz most middle America is aware of the benefits of palm oil.
If someone goes to Senegal what is the first food they must try?
The first food they must try is the national dish, Thiebou jen. That’s the ancestor of what became the controversial jollof rice. It’s jollof rice with fish that’s been cooked in the broth that will cook the rice.
The fish is stuffed in a spiced parsley mixture with root vegetables like sweet potato, carrots, yucca and cabbage served on the side.
Check out more at pierrethiam.com