Will the South embrace Senegalese cooking? One young chef has a plan
Senegal's flavors and one-pot cooking gave us gumbo, jambalaya and Hoppin' John, but we aren't savoring the originals, says Serigne Mbaye, a young chef born in Harlem but raised in Senegal. Why isn't Senegalese food as revered as the cooking of France and Italy?
At the moment, Mbaye borrows kitchens in New Orleans, popping-up a few times a week to cook black-eyed pea fritters, Senegalese egg rolls and jollof, a deeply flavored rice dish with seafood. But he has bigger plans.
A dream to bring West Africa to New Orleans
Mbaye vows, before he turns 28, to open a Senegalese restaurant in New Orleans called Dakar NOLA. He's now 26, and only graduated from the New England Culinary Institute four years ago. By the time he turns 45, he wants a culinary school in Senegal. His vision includes re-imagining Dakar, the country's capital.
"In the city of Dakar, our culture is leaving little by little, because of the European influence. And I think as a chef, if I don't make a mark with the food we might lose our culture," Mbaye said.
Serigne (pronounced like "serene") means "peace" or "love," he explained. True to his name, rather than arrogance he projects steady confidence. Many young men have ambition, but Mbaye is driven by a mission. And he is not working alone. Everywhere he goes, he gains loyal supporters, from the owner of New Orleans fish house he met in an airport to Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in the United States to hold three Michelin stars.
"You feel like helping him is a good investment," said Lolis Eric Elie, the television and food writer from New Orleans who Mbaye considers his mentor. "I ain't trying to make money off what he's doing. I'm saying a good investment in that you think this is someone who will take whatever knowledge or resource you can share and put it to good use."
'Secret restaurants' were the gateways to Senegalese flavor
The first chapter Mbaye always cites in his ‘biography’ ended before he was born. His mother, Khady Kante, ran one of New York's few Senegalese restaurants, Touba Taif, from 1989 to '91.
Robert Sietsema, the Village Voice's longtime food critic who now writes for the website Eater, recalls eating thieb, Senegal's national dish of fish, rice and vegetables, at Touba Taif. He also remembers the hostess was a Senegalese woman and a "very good cook" — almost certainly Mbaye's mother.
"At the time, Senegalese restaurants were not licensed establishments, they were set up in people’s houses or in hotel rooms," Sietsema said. "Touba Taif was one of those secret restaurants, located on the ground floor of a brownstone in Harlem."
To boarding school and back again
When he was six, Mbaye's world changed. His parents sent him and an older brother, Cheick, to several boarding schools in Senegal where the only subject was the Quran.
At the first school, his brother Cheick remembers that boys would be hit or forced to exercise as motivation. Mbaye says he was not given breakfast or lunch for three months, a punishment for memorizing verses too slowly.
"Before, I never talked about it. It was like talking about someone who passed away," Mbaye said of the school. "Now I can talk about it more freely, because a lot has happened in between."
At the third school they attended, Mbaye was quickly recognized for his cooking skill, where he learned to make lakh, a sour milk pudding. Soon he was cooking for hundreds of teachers and students.
Mbaye was 14 when he returned to the United States. But coming home was no easier than boarding school. He didn't speak English and had never been taught math, science or history. Still, he was determined to learn. By his senior year, Mbaye was on the honor roll with a dream to attend culinary school.
In New York, where Mbaye was living, students must pass the Regents Exams to graduate. He passed all but the U.S. history exam, which meant another year of high school. He took it again, and failed. By then, he was living alone in the city and working at a restaurant. He took it a third time. He needed a score of 65. He earned a 64.
"I just didn't want to live anymore, literally," he said.
Mbaye finally passed on the fourth try. And he did go to culinary school in Vermont, where he graduated at the top of his class. He was, he said, the only Black person, student or teacher, at the entire school.
"You can be the most racist person in the world, but it would not affect me," he said. "It would not affect me, because nothing ever will be harder than boarding school."
One discovery leads to a golden opportunity
As he began to think about his career, Mbaye discovered Pierre Thiam, another Senegalese chef working the U.S. Thiam has become a leading advocate for Senegal's food and ingredients through his cooking and books, like "Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl" and "The Fonio Cookbook." He told Mbaye to first return to Senegal, where he had not been since boarding school, and just eat.
"There is so much wealth and tradition there that needs to be explored," Thiam said. "Our cuisine hasn't been recorded as other cuisines have."
Mbaye didn't have a job lined up after his trip to Senegal. Waiting at the airport in Dakar to come home, he met a group from New Orleans, who were excited to ease into a conversation in English. One of them was Cliff Hall, who co-owns a fish distributor in New Orleans.
"I cried talking to this young man," Hall said. "He was so passionate about learning."
Hall called his friend and customer Tory McPhail, the James Beard Award-winning chef at the New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace, which launched the careers of both Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. For the first time, Hall asked McPhail for a favor: hire Mbaye.
"When he came into Commander's, he wanted to conquer the world every day," said Kevin Cowley, who cooked alongside Mbaye and is now the sous chef at New Orleans' Bywater American Bistro. "At that point, he was kind of closed off. He never talked about where he was from."
Tying Senegal and NOLA through Creole cooking
During the year and half he was at Commander's Palace, Mbaye began to share his Senegalese food with the kitchen. He hosted pop-up dinners at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. He began to taste familiar flavors in the city's Creole cooking, many flavors that the enslaved Africans brought to America and planted across the South.
"The environment is what defines a cuisine, and Senegal is a coastal country," Thiam said. "It's also located in the south of the Sahara desert, so coastal and dry."
The food of Senegal also includes many outside influences, like from France, which colonized the country, and Vietnam, where Senegalese men served in the French army. Those two cultures have also made their mark on Louisiana's cooking.
"My thing now is how can I do modernized Senegalese food?" Mbaye said. "That's pretty much modern Creole cooking."
Returning home to master the craft
After New Orleans, Mbaye got a job in San Francisco at Atelier Crenn, the three-star Michelin restaurant run by the French-born chef Dominique Crenn. He wanted to learn how the most elite kitchens in the world work.
"Everything is about consistency, organization, teamwork. One voice matters, which is the chef," he said about Atelier Crenn.
After nine months working for Crenn, he traveled to London, Paris and Greece. He cooked at a hotel in Barcelona, serving a menu created by Thiam.
Then he went back to Senegal, spending time in the countryside to master the country's one-pot cooking.
"For a chef who is both cooking-school trained and trained in the kitchen of Commander's Palace and Atelier Crenn to go back and sit with the grandmothers and learn how they cook, it's a powerful testament to the various layers of subtlety and technique involved in creating that food," said Elie, Mbaye's mentor.
COVID closes a door, but opens the window to a dream
A return to New Orleans wasn't on Mbaye's itinerary. He went to New York, and got a job at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, a two-star Michelin restaurant from the legendary French chef. But a few months later, COVID-19 hit and shut down the restaurant. This time, the setback didn't phase Mbaye. He saw it as an opportunity. He returned to New Orleans with his plan for Dakar NOLA.
"I don't think I'm going to go back and work for somebody else right now," he said.
He knows this moment, when so many restaurants are closed and struggling, might not seem like the best time to open a new place. But maybe it is the perfect time to open his restaurant.
"Considering what has been happening and all the protests, I think now people really want to see West African food today," he said.
Mbaye knows that many people, even Elie his mentor, think he is in too much of a rush. But he must hurry. He has so much to do.
"I know what will happen if I don't do it, but if I go out there and try things could be better than expected," he said.
Follow Mbaye on Instagram at @serigne_love or find out about his latest pop-up at www.dakarnola.com.
News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for The American South newsletter.