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For Senegalese Chef Pierre Thiam, the Future of Food Is in the Past

In Senegal, men don’t cook.

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Evan Sung

In Senegal, men don’t cook. We sit entombed, couch-dazed, singly and in clusters, pondering the gnawing, fathomless depths of our stomachs, while women chop and ladle and flash-fry in wreaths of steam, sweating like welders. I know Senegalese men who couldn’t tell you whether they own a toaster, or what exactly one is used for. Meals simply appear, as if by magic, from a kingdom beyond the living room. If Senegalese women were to declare a national strike, the whole country would starve. It’s an ancient system that, even today, admits scant revision.

Which partly explains why Pierre Thiam, growing up in a family of outlier female cooks in Dakar, never thought of becoming a chef. His mom threw down in the kitchen, and ditto his aunt: true visionaries lassoing together dueling strands of traditional African cuisine and European standards. One night it’d be soupoukandia, Senegal’s blistering gumbo of Scotch bonnet peppers, okra and smoked catfish poured over rice; the next, crab gratin, gently béchameled and heaped in scallop shells to be finished in the oven. As a boy, transfixed by his mother’s Larousse Gastronomique — the grand old leather-bound edition with the Escoffier preface, as big as an engine block — Thiam recognized in the folds of its grease-stained pages something rare and profound but inaccessible.

“You know that moment in childhood, looking back, when a light goes on?” he says now. “That was it. It wasn’t playing soccer in the streets. It was a cookbook. But the kitchen was not for boys.”

Twenty years later, during a layover in New York City on his way to college in Ohio, Thiam was cleaned out by crack addicts in a Times Square hotel — a 1980s Times Square hotel: silverfish in the shower drains, a lingering odor of death, etc. His entire savings, shoes, socks, everything, poof! He’d been headed to Baldwin-Wallace College in Cuyahoga County to study chemistry. Instead, he wound up as a busboy in the West Village living hand to mouth. It’s the stuff immigrant-bootstrap stories are made of. He’s still never been to Ohio.

Thiam mentions some of this in his new cookbook, Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl (Lake Isle Press), though minus the crack addicts, or how, at that West Village restaurant, the first thing he noticed was that all the cooks were men, and the second thing he noticed was the food was the same food from his mom’s Larousse.

“I was like, finally, this is what I’ve always wanted to know about,” he says.

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He sailed through the line — from dishwasher to prep-cook to garde manger to grill man — essentially staging as a kitchen vagabond, passing his idle time in the library reading Julia Child cookbooks and later tinkering with the recipes. Back in Senegal, his mom became his cornerman. He’d start cooking, phone mom, resume cooking. Many of his early recipes came directly from her — by degrees of magnitude, this was not unlike Merlin retrieving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. As a sous chef, he rummaged further into his own id for ideas, twining his mom’s inspiration with something he then only fleetingly grasped.

Senegal is an awesome distillation of everything Thiam has come to know in the intervening years. It’s more than a cookbook. Although the recipes are excellent — his take on traditional thiebou jenn, a fish-and-root-vegetable stew that’s a national obsession in Senegal, and on the ubiquitous street food accara, a black-eyed-pea fritter rendered here in sandwich form, and on the slow-roasted leg-of-lamb found at roadside dibiteries, are reminders of our deepest gustatory desires. The book reads like a cultural autobiography, or a personal anthropology of the West African stomach. There are detours into ruinous colonial history, spotlights on traditional crops like moringa and fonio, sketches of Senegalese cooks and farmers and producers and fishermen, all written with a keen intelligence rare in cookbooks. But what mostly emerges is an enigmatic and deeply intimate look at Thiam’s origins and evolution as a chef. By default, it’s also kind of a love letter to Senegalese women.

When you get right to it, he has reanimated rural African cooking with Larousse-ian style to create a world of his own.

I lived in Senegal for a year back in 2001. What I remember most about nights in Dakar are the kitchen and courtyard lights buzzing with the promise of a meal. Senegal has a universal open-door dinner policy. No invitation or jacket necessary and the kitchen stays open late. A friend of a friend of a distant cousin’s mechanic, dripping with blood and brandishing a chainsaw, will be asked over without hesitation. The menu is always a happy blend of West and North African, French and Portuguese, and even Vietnamese cuisine, and eating is a collective, familial affair engineered by gifted women working in the culinary shadows. Making the rounds in my neighborhood, I kept my nose perked for the lemony-onion ambrosia of yassa poulet and the decadent peanut-based lamb masala known as mafé, dragging my tongue behind me in the dust. A space was always cleared. The women, faint with fatigue, always brought forth something miraculous.

Senegal is full of this kind of stuff. North and south, from eastern fishing villages to semi-desert outposts of the western interior, Thiam strikes deep into an endlessly rich foodways that’s sadly neglected by the West — except when literally it’s being poached, as Senegal’s coastal waters routinely are by Russian and Chinese trawlers — but bursting nonetheless with ingenuity. The “modern” of the subtitle means adaptations and revisions of traditional recipes. Despite his background in chemistry, Thiam thankfully stops short of molecular departures. When you get right to it, he has reanimated rural African cooking with Larousse-ian style to create a world of his own. No mean feat in this age of culinary bombast masquerading as novelty.

They’re themes that Thiam hammered at his well-loved but defunct Brooklyn restaurants, Yolele and La Grand Dakar, and in his first cookbook, Yolele! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal — themes which reach their apotheosis in Senegal. He’ll transplant them to Lagos next year, where he’s executive chef at a restaurant designed by British architect David Adjaye, and to a West African fast-casual spot on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. At both, mom’s Larousse will have a physical and metaphysical presence.

“For a long time I wasn’t sure where I was headed,” he says. “But I always felt like the future of food was in the past.”

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