Since touching down in New York City more than 30 years ago from his hometown Dakar, the Senegalese chef, author, and culinary activist, Pierre Thiam, has dedicated his life to introducing a global audience to west African cuisine. In doing so, he hopes to promote a region with a rich food culture, empower local farmers, and challenge long-held perceptions about a part of the world too often linked with negative stereotypes.
“I’ve consciously branded myself in this way as I wanted this to be about Africa, about west Africa in particular,” he says. “But I don’t want to limit it to a country. These borders are not real. And that is true with foods and flavors. There is a cultural thread that uses foods, sauces, flavors, and techniques. I have consciously claimed Africa.”
Today, Thiam is synonymous with fonio, a grain so ancient and sacred that it is said Egyptian Pharaohs were buried with portions for their meals in the afterlife. Indigenous to the Sahel region that straddles the width of Africa between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanian savanna, fonio is gluten-free, rich in iron, and amino acids, can grow in nutrient-poor soil, and requires very little water, which makes it the ideal crop in the fight against climate change.
Thiam’s latest book, The Fonio Cookbook, was published in 2019 and offers a comprehensive range of uses for “the most nutritious grain you’ve never heard of,” as described by National Geographic. Thiam is also the co-owner of Yolélé—roughly translated to ‘let the good times roll’—which works with rural smallholder farmers to produce a range of fonio snacks for distribution across the US through Whole Foods, Target, and other retailers.
“It’s a struggle,” Thiam says of his ambition to recalibrate not only western palates but also western minds. “But in truth, there is also a struggle for Africans. Although we love our food back home, it’s only cooked in homes or small restaurants. The more established, upmarket restaurants and hotels, from breakfast to dinner, serve western food. We look down on our products.”
“There has to be a mindset shift. We perceive what we have is not good enough. It reflects on the supermarket shelves where the majority of products are foreign. If I can turn fonio into a world-class product, it will help change the perception of our own produce. If a Senegalese person can feel proud at the sight of fonio on the shelf in a New York supermarket, that makes a small difference.”
Thiam never sought this path but stumbled onto it by chance. Like almost every other family in west Africa, his own was fed by the hands of women. His mother would spend much of her time at the local market picking fresh ingredients to cook at home. Fresh fish was a staple, as was ‘broken rice,’ “I never saw a man in the kitchen,” Thiam says.
There was one exception. A godfather of Vietnamese origin would incorporate cooking techniques that his mother taught him with Senegalese ingredients. This opened Thiam’s mind to the transportive powers of food and how a single plate can stretch across time and space.
“Every dish is a chance for education,” he says. “It can teach us about geography, about culture, about history.” But this link was still fragmented when he left Dakar to finish his studies in the US and pursue his ambition of becoming a chemical engineer.
In New York, he found work in a kitchen and married several key threads of his psyche. Blending the desire to nourish others that he inherited from his mother with the cross-national blends encouraged by his godfather and the molecular know-how he had gleaned through his studies, Thiam stood out from his peers.
“When I first started working in cooking, it was just a job. But when I grew, I began to see the chemistry in cooking. I could understand the reactions, I knew that mixing two ingredients that would otherwise not go together could make an emulsion. That certain types of ingredients would need searing before adding liquid because braising requires the meat to be sealed. That’s chemistry.”
Thiam gained experience at a range of restaurants, cooking Italian, French, and American dishes. He was living in the self-styled “food capital of the world.” He couldn’t help but notice a glaring omission.
“Africa was missing,” he says. “I saw this as an opportunity and that is what guided my mission to introduce the foods from Africa. Immigrants feel a connection to their homeland when eating food, and we all share that desire. It also connects people.”
Thiam has since cooked for the King of Morocco, among other notable world leaders. He sits on various boards, including the culinary institute of America’s African cuisines, and is an icon of west African heritage. His Yolélé venture has seen double-digit growth since its inception in 2017. But despite his numerous successes, he has not lost his grander vision.
“We saw with the pandemic that when borders close, a country, a region, must be self-reliant,” he says. “Africa is a breadbasket. It has 60% of the world’s arable land. People often believe that this is a continent that needs aid, that requires help. Africa can help the world; it can feed the world. Fonio is symbolic of this.”
There is still much to be done. Thiam acknowledges that he is a long way from dislodging quinoa as the super grain of choice for middle-class and health-conscious consumers across the planet. But the trajectory is positive, and the rise of young African chefs—such as Nigeria’s Michael Elégbèdé, Zambia’s Lilliam Elidah, and Congolese Dieuveil Malonga—in some of the world’s best kitchens is a sign of the shifting perceptions.
“We all feel it, don’t we, whenever something good comes from Africa,” Thiam says. “there is an African cultural unity that connects everyone from the continent, regardless of where you’re from, what your skin color is. We see this in the World Cup. It’s the same with food.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Pierre Thiam’s alma mater