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The chef serving Africa on a plate

From Aja Harris, CNN and Catriona Davies
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pierre Thiam's cookbook was nominated for the Julia Child Award
  • His Senegalese restaurant is a popular spot in Brooklyn, New York
  • Thiam did not take up cooking seriously until he was in his 20s

New York (CNN) -- Chef Pierre Thiam is on a mission to teach New Yorkers about African cuisine.

He opened his Senegalese restaurant Le Grand Dakar in Brooklyn, New York, four years ago and such has been its popularity that he has diversified into catering events, teaching cookery classes and appearing on television shows such as Iron Chef America.

Thiam has also written a cookbook, "Yolele," which was nominated for the coveted Julia Child Awards. He says it is the first Senegalese cookbook in English. Yolele, a Fulani word that translates as "let the good times roll," is the first Senegalese cookbook in English, Thiam said.

He said: "I believe it's a food that has a place on the culinary table and it's important to start with a book. Maybe other people will get inspired and do other things with it."

Video: Serving up Senegalese cuisine

Thiam dedicated the book to his late mother, who he said was his biggest inspiration.

"I grew up eating," he said. "My mom was a wonderful cook. Everyday in Senegal, everyone comes home and sits around the bowl.

"That's the time when the mothers or the aunts prepare a delicious meal. So food has always been big part of my upbringing.

"Being a man though I couldn't even think about cooking as a career, because in Senegal cooking is the role of the women and I grew up in this kind of culture."

Thiam did not start cooking until he was in his 20s and decided to leave his chemistry course. He could not afford to go to cookery school, so he began by borrowing Julia Child's cookery book from the library and worked through the recipes.

The importance of Julia Child to his own culinary education made Thiam even prouder to be nominated for the award.

I believe it's a food that has a place on the culinary table.
--Pierre Thiam
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"Being nominated for Julia Child was actually a beautiful wink," he said.

Thiam said, as a man, he had to learn the intuition in the kitchen that comes naturally to women in his society.

He added: "Africa has a challenge. Many people don't think of Africa as abundance and food and delicious. You always think of Africa as scarcity."

One look at his menu and his dishes confirms otherwise. The restaurant serves a fusion of West African dishes with Portuguese, French and Vietnamese influences.

Its specialties include cassava fries -- cassava is similar to an African potato -- and black-eyed pea fritters, a common street food in Senegal.

He said Senegal's national dish is a fish stuffed with parsley and served with rice cooked in a tomato broth.

In the lush, tropical south of the country, a gumbo made with oysters, crab, palm oil and okra is popular.

Thiam, who works 12-hour shifts as owner and head chef of his restaurant, said: "Cooking to me is a passion because I've seen it being the only craft that has all your senses awakened.

"You need your smell, you need your visual, you need your taste, of course, you need to be completely in awareness of your environment when you cook, you need to be hearing, you need to be feeling it when you touch your meat, when you touch your fish, when you go to the market."

As part of his drive to make African culture accessible to locals, Thiam launched the Brooklyn African Block Party five years ago. It is an outdoor event with food, including a grill and roast lamb, live bands and dancing.

It's all part of his plan to "serve up Africa on a plate."

 
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