Catching Up with Pierre Thiam
Pierre Thiam grew up in Dakar, Senegal, exposed to the city’s multicultural origins on a daily basis through the form of food. Senegalese, French, Vietnamese, Moroccan, and Portuguese were among the kinds of cuisine that he came to know and love. When he moved to New York in the ‘80s, Pierre brought this love with him, and he set out to give the US a taste of Senegal. A chef, a caterer, and the author of the Senegalese cookbook, Yolele! (2008), Pierre has been called a culinary ambassador to Senegal. Here, Lake Isle checks in with Pierre, asking him about him about food, African culture in New York, and his plans for the future.
What dish would you recommend to an American trying Senegalese food for the first time?
Hm, that’s tough because there are so many delicious dishes. I would say yassa, a simple dish of grilled, marinated chicken or fish. It is marinated with lemon or lime and grilled with wood or charcoal. You eat it with rice and onion confit – the onions are cooked really slowly until they get to the caramelized point. It is a simple dish from the south of Senegal and it is a good introduction to Senegalese food.
What is the history of Senegalese people in New York, and is there a big community today?
There is a vibrant community, especially in Harlem, and there is even an area called Little Senegal in Harlem. Senegalese people were very much a big part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Many people came to Harlem and made mom and pop restaurants and spread Senegalese culture. But today people are moving out because that area has become gentrified, so more Senegalese people live in places like Brooklyn and the Bronx.
I’ve heard that your restaurant Le Grand-Dakar in Brooklyn (unfortunately now closed) was a sort of African cultural center, with lots of live African music. Is there a new cultural center?
There is a Nigerian cafe in Brooklyn called Buka with some live performances. There is also a new African restaurant opening this coming month in February, on 24th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
You’ve been called a culinary ambassador to Senegal. What exactly does that mean?
I’m a voice for the cuisine of my part of the world, my origin, and my tradition. I have contributed my voice through my restaurant, my book, and my patrons. I thought it was very important work when I moved to New York, because New York was the capital of the culinary world, but there was no food from my culture. African cuisine was missing. So I took it upon myself to bring New York Senegalese cuisine.
What types of people and events do you most often cater for?
A whole diversity of people – from people who have some knowledge of African cuisine and want that theme at their parties, to others who have heard about me. I do everything from the food to the ambience – it is a cultural experience, different from your regular catering. I have a very wide clientele; New Yorkers are very open-minded when it comes to cuisine, and people who like what I do want to try it out and introduce it to their circle of friends.
What are your plans for the future – any new books or restaurants?
I’m focusing on a new book right now. I’ve been traveling all over Senegal to work on it. The goal is to go deeper into the origins of Senegalese cuisine and to showcase the ingredients. I’ve interviewed people who are producers of the ingredients. For example, I focus on rice-farmers and the ancient rice-growing tradition. Also the local fishermen, who travel on the high seas and eat fish both fresh and also fermented. There are many creative recipes and beautiful images in the book. I also project the future of Senegalese cuisine.
I’m working on doing restaurant menus, including for an upcoming place in Harlem with African influences, but I’m not opening a new restaurant now. I’m focusing most of my energy on the book and completing it.
Thanks, Pierre, and we can’t wait to read your next book!
Meagan Goldman is a food-lover and aspiring writer. You can follow her at www.meaganbakerwriting.blogspot.com