Cooking Up a Storm from Dakar to Brooklyn
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Welcome to Into Africa. My name is Mvemba Phezo Dizolele. I'm a senior fellow and the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This is a podcast where we talk everything Africa: politics, economics, security and culture. Welcome.
African immigrant to the United States have left their mark on all dimensions of American life. From the taxi drivers to the military officers, to the NASA scientists and policymakers in the government and congress, African immigrants contribute enormously to this country. However, when one looks at the food industry or restaurant space, African immigrants do not seem to fare as well. Except for Ethiopian restaurant, it is often a challenge to find a good African restaurant in major US cities. Yet, as a continent of 54 countries, African cuisine is as varied and diverse as Africa. That cuisine, or shall I say those African cuisines, are often very healthy and African staple food serve as a vital link connecting Africans to the global community.
So why is it that we do not see many good African restaurants in the United States? Is it about food? We know Africans are entrepreneurial. Do they face other obstacles such as finance, or is it about service? What would it take to change this situation? Joining me on Into Africa today to help address these questions is Pierre Thiam, a renowned chef, author and social activist celebrated for popularizing West African cuisine globally through TED Talk and Vox. Here is the executive chef of Teranga in New York City and Nok by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria, where he has introduced healthy, locally sourced West African dishes. Pierre is also the executive chef at the Pullman Hotel in Dakar, Senegal. Pierre Thiam, welcome to Into Africa.
Pierre Thiam: Thank you, Mvemba. It's a pleasure to be here.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So, you have made it your business to feed people. You also made (laughs) it your business to push African foods, uh, around the world, not just in, in Senegal and New York. I'm sure you've done it, sure thing. I read somewhere actually that you fed the King of Morocco and President Emmanuel Mar- Marcon of France. Why food? Why African food? And why do we see up these challenges?
Pierre Thiam: Why food? Uh, I guess food is vital. I mean food is something we, we all need to have, and, uh, I love food, actually. And why African food? This is the food that I actually enjoy the most. Why am I doing this? You know, there's a lot of whys here, but why am I doing this, how I stumbled, actually, I stumbled into this, this profession is when I first arrived to, to New York as a young student, I had a student visa when I came to New York, and that was back in the early, uh late '80s, early '90s. I was here after the period of student crisis in Senegal, where we had, you know, we had a, a, so many days of strikes that the government shut the university down.
At that time, I was a student at Cheikh Anta Diop University, which was, uh, in the department of physics and chemistry. For me, to, to finish my degree, like many of my peers, we had to, to figure out a way to leave the country and, uh, you know, there was no, no hope really for us, and, um, ah, the whole place in this, uh, college in Ohio, in Cleveland, Ohio accepted my application. And I got a student visa from the embassy, so I was on my way to Ohio, decided to stop by New York. There was no direct flight from Dakar to, to Cleveland, so New York was a stop. I had a friend who lived here, and that, that stop was supposed to be two weeks. It lasted 30-plus years (laughs).
So, to make a long story short, being in the restaurant world in this wonderful food capital of the world, which is New York City, I saw an opportunity. I, you know, I had been working from the bottom up in the, in this, in this field. There was so many amazing food being present in New York, but the food from Africa, as you were mentioning in your introduction, was absent, and that food to me had its place here, for different reasons.
You know, you grow up in a city like Dakar, which is a city where, you know, there's such a diversity, a beautiful, uh, pastiche of, of food from the, the region, you know, from, you know, the street food, women from Benin making these amazing black-eyed pea fritters and you have the, the, the maki, what we call maki from Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon. You know, all that is present in Dakar, not to mention the wonderful food that mom and the aunties cook at home, you know, the, the, the Thieboudienne, our national dish, which is like this amazing, uh, I mean, it's a bad comparison when you say amazing paella 'cause it's much more flavorful than a paella, but this is a rice-based dish with, you know, seafood or tomato base or, you know, the yassa which is the grilled chicken.
All those wonderful flavors were just absent, and I knew they had a place in New York City. And, you know, as you mentioned, there's such a beautiful diversity of food from the continent that you cannot say there is one cuisine. There's cuisines. You know, you take Nigeria, it's like a country with 200-plus languages. So, imagine the diversity of the cuisine that can come out of it, you know. And, you know, not only the ingredients, but there are methods of cooking.
So, all of that just made me confident that there was a way to find inspiration in that cuisine as I'm growing as a chef. I wanted to grow as a chef that find inspiration in this tradition. It didn't make sense for me as being the chef from West Africa to present my cuisine being inspired by French cuisine, and that's what was taught to us, you know, the classics in, in cuisines were always inspired by French cuisine, and, and that didn't resonate right. I knew that Africa had its place, uh, I knew that that food was amazing, and I knew that New York would be ready for it. So that's how I started. Eventually, I left the restaurants where I had become a chef, a restaurant in Soho, very successful at that time, to launch my catering and focus on West African food.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Okay, so let's take it from there. Chemistry and physics-
Pierre Thiam: Mm-hmm.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... that's what you were studying (laughs) at University Cheikh Anta Diop in your home country of Senegal. You come to Cleveland. What happens in Cleveland and why you go from Cleveland to New York?
Pierre Thiam: Uh-uh. No, you missed the step here. I stopped by New York on my way to Cleveland.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Uh-huh. And then?
Pierre Thiam: I tell you today, I still don't know what Cleveland looks like (laughs).
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So you never made it to Cleveland?
Pierre Thiam: I never made it.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So you step in New York-
Pierre Thiam: I step in New York.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... a city that never sleeps-
Pierre Thiam: A city that never sleeps.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... and-
Pierre Thiam: Yes, exactly.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: And you decided this is the stop, forget Ohio. University's waiting for you, they're still waiting, they've been waiting all this time, and you say you started from the bottom up. What happened? What does that mean when you say you started from the bot... So, you had to leave. You came back from the point country. You had to survive, like all of us. And then what happened there?
Pierre Thiam: I, I arrived in New York. Three days after I arrived, I had $3,000 approximately, and that was my ticket to Ohio and then beginning in Ohio, figuring it out. Me and a friend of mine, actually, who made it to Ohio and who became a physi- a chem, physics en- a chemical engineer, Aviv. So anyway, my way to, to Ohio, I stopped by New York. Another friend of ours lived here. He lived in, uh, you know, there's like these, these, um, places where lots of Senegalese immigrants were living. It was kind of a hotel/immigrant rooms/lots of junkies. At that time, New York, it was mid '80s, you know, it was the AIDS epidemic, it was crack epidemic, you know. I'm not sure if you're, you're familiar with that time.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Yes, yes.
Pierre Thiam: So those were my neighbors in New York. And three days after I arrived, I was robbed. Everything that I had in savings were gone. So, I had a ticket, return ticket to Senegal, which I considered very much I was hating New York with all my guts, but there was no way for me to make it to Ohio. And I coincidentally happened to have one of the immigrants, Senegalese immigrant who were living in that, uh, hotel, who was working in a restaurant in the West Village. And that restaurant was looking for a busboy position. A busboy is the guy in the, in the room who just cleans up the plates and, and fills up the water bo- uh, glasses for the customers, and that didn't require any particular skill. So that's how I was hired for that job.
And, and the boss of that restaurant, who's still a good friend, Richard Gavin, his restaurant was in the West Village, and that became my very first boss, my very first job. I've learned so much from being there. And the most important thing for me was, in that kitchen of that restaurant, that's when I realized that men could cook. I had never seen men in the kitchen.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: The cooks were all men? No women in the kitchen?
Pierre Thiam: All, all, uh, all men in the kitchen, or chef from-
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Nothing like Senegal?
Pierre Thiam: Oh, nothing like West Africa, you know. From Chef Bill, from Chef Bill all the way to, to Manuel, the dishwasher, and, and Samba, the guy who got me the job, they were all men in that kitchen. And they were crazy men too. It was a crazy crew, and they became my friends, really. They became, you know, you know, the place I wanted to hang out the most. You know, the food looked amazing and, and the chef took a liking into me.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: And what type of cuisine was-
Pierre Thiam: It was American. It was modern American. The chef had studied in France, so he, he liked to practice his French with me, and that's how he invited me. He knew my story. He knew that I was hating what I was doing now. You know, I always thought of myself as like, an intellectual and I'm doing this manual job, and, and he was like, "No, you have to, you know, there is a pass out of this and, uh, actually, why don't you take extra shifts when you finish busboy? Come in the kitchen and become a dishwasher." And I'm like, "No, I can't be a dishwasher," but there was money coming my way and that was extra money that I badly needed.
And I took those jobs. And Chef was like really became a mentor to me. He was like taking me from the dishwasher shift to like, learning how to do prep. U- using a knife, using those skills, using a cleaning table. You know, so that's how I went from the prep and then from the prep to garde manger, which is the next station. After garde manger, that's when you work in, in the cold station of the kitchen and start to learn the salads and the dressings and start to now realize that cooking is chemistry.
So, so that's the link now, 'cause if e- you're realizing that every reaction in the kitchen, all the sauces, they all respond to what you learn in the lab, you know, the lipids. The, the vinegar is the acid, you know, the lemon, the juices, the other acid, you know, those things are reaction that you can understand now. You understand the, the terms, even the terms that we use. Emulsion, that becomes a vinaigrette. Those things were like things that I knew in theory, and I'm like, really a- applying it and realizing that this is even more interesting than what I was learning in labs at, at Dakar University sin- I mean this is instant gratifica- you can l- taste it, you know. It's so much more interest than the theory.
And eventually, from garde manger, you move to the other stations in the kitchen, to the grill, to the sauces, to the line cook. From line cook, eventually, I left that restaurant and, know, I had a skill now, so I went to work in an Italian restaurant learning a different type of cooking skill, then to a French bistro, Jean Claude in Soho. Still there, they have a few locations now. And from Jean Claude, went to work to another restaurant called Boom. So that's at Boom that I eventually got promoted to chef de cuisine. That restaurant was a, a special place. It was when Soho was booming in New York and, uh, we had like an A list of, of clientele.
And it was also successful that they opened, uh, two more locations, and one of them, I was designated to be the chef de cuisine at that location. It was in South Beach, Miami, where I became the chef de cuisine. And as I'm designing the menu, I'm also asked to add the influences from my cuisine because those influences, I was already starting to serve them to the staff. When we do s- family meal at the restaurant, we served those influences. Like use, we do whatever you want for family meal, but when I do family meal, I was thinking of food from my memory and serving, you know, peanut sauce and red sauce and okra stew and yassa, and the staff always loved it. So when I got promoted to run the South Beach restaurant, I was asked, "Why don't you do specials of like West Africans that you do?" and, and that was the beginning of this journey for me.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Impressive. So, as you get to that point, then, when does it fully click and you say, "I'm gonna do my own thing. I'm gonna bring Senegal to United States. I'm gonna deliver it and they would like it?" You know, part of the challenge, you hear a lot of questions when you ask people, they say, "Well, wh- why then there's not enough African restaurant around places?" and people say, "Well, those are foreign tastes," or els- else, you get questions like, they say, "American palate is not, is not gonna handle it." Right? It's too spicy or it's too acidic, or whatever. But yet we see Indian restaurants, we see Chinese restaurants, and maybe those restaurant, those cuisines have adapted to the American palate. I don't know. You are the experts here. What clicked with you and within you? And then when you d- you went about it, what, what, how did you address those questions, those challenges?
Pierre Thiam: It didn't show up, obviously. It showed up because, you know, we, we have been bombarded with all these stories about Africa that even condition us to think that either we are not enough or our food is not enough, that we even don't have a cuisine, you know. As that's actually, some of the questions, silly questions I, I received, I heard when I f- my first cookbook came out and I was, uh, doing my round of interviews. Some people just thought of Africa as a continent of starvation, of a continent where you need to help them and feed them.
So anyway, so those questions obviously came up, but very easily I didn't hear that voice because I could see, I had the experience all these other cuisines. I was in New York, in the pulse of it, and I could see, I appreciated the, those other cuisines and I knew that African food had its place, you know. And even further, as I was cooking thas- tho- those dishes in doing family meal, you know, that moment where the, someone in the kitchen prepares for the whole staff, I could see how all these people in the staff were reacting to the food. They loved it. They never had it before, just they loved it.
And that place where we were at Boom was a place where we would also have influences from Southeast Asia at the time. It was really some starting. It was early '90s in New York, so it was starting to come. It wasn't even big yet that, at that time. But those flavors from Southeast Asia had some similarities to what we had in, in, uh, West Africa. You know, they use the fermentation in the flavors. They used those spices and those chilis. That was a cuisine that was about to explode. And I knew, I was, I mean that place, I was in a place where I could appreciate that and I could see the destination where things were going.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So, you saw the wave, you wanted to catch the wave.
Pierre Thiam: Yeah. I saw an opportunity. I saw an opportunity, and that was, uh, more than, than opportunity. I also wanted to rewrite the story that was told about who we are, 'cause cuisine is something that, that's, that's important. That's where civilization begins. And that, the moment where they make you believe that your cuisine is not good enough, you are in trouble, because that, that's really something that we need to take time to think through, you know.
The recipes that we have, especially our traditional recipes, have been passed upon from generation to generation. This is something that's like, not only arrived to us from mother to daughter, but that has transcended even time and space. You know, you look at s- these recipes, you can also find them across the diaspora. If you pay attention, in New Orleans, in South Carolina, in Bahia, in Brazil, in, in Jamaica, in Cuba, in Mexico, people don't even realize that, that Mexico has a strong influence of West Africa.
So, that's the cuisine we need to really just not only respect and pay attention to, but it's very important that we also give it the credits, its due credits. And that was one of the thing I thought I was going to tap into. I felt like it was important for me as I look for that inspiration that I also bring this as my mission, to bring it to the forefront and really tell the story right. So, um, so it was a lot of that inspired me.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So how did they receive it? You open your first menu-
Pierre Thiam: Mm-hmm.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... in the menu book. People come and they pronounce the names. Or you have to have (laughs) everything translated. And then, what's the original reaction? Were there challenges at that time and what were they?
Pierre Thiam: Oh, yeah, there were always challenges, and, uh, it was always signs of encouragement. When I first opened, uh, my first restaurant, it was called Yolele. It was at, uh, in Bed-Stuy. And at that time, Bed-Stuy was, was like the hoods, you know. It was not like the gentrified Bed-Stuy that you see here. Actually, we contributed i- in, in (laughs), in gentrifying this, this area. We were the very first sit-down restaurant with a wine menu, and it was amazing.
And, yes and no. I didn't want to compromise. I wanted to offer the food that I love eating, you know. So I thought there was a role in educating people. And it was received right away by the, first of all, the, the diaspora. Everyone was so proud of bringing their, their friends, their colleagues to a place that would be representing the food that they love. And it was not only the, the African immigrant, not only those who are the intellectual, the bankers, but the, the people from the diaspora as well, the Caribbeans. That was the kind of people that would come to the restaurant. And Yolele, within first week, we had an article from The New York Times. That was something for me that was like, okay, you know.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: That's a big promotion. New York Times, huh?
Pierre Thiam: And one week.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Yeah.
Pierre Thiam: One week. A- a- and that's one of many, you know. We had so many different, we had ABC did a special television program there, 'cause it was so unique in New York. The place was actually quite unique, too. Even the inside of the place. We had these I mean huge leafy banana trees and we had these, a friend of mine had this collection from Côte d'Ivoire and he sh- he was shipping them, and so this is what we used. Alpha, bless his soul. And, uh, i- we had these amazing statue.
So it was really like an experience, and that's really what I wanted. You enter and you, you're having an experience. That's what a restaurant's supposed to be offering, just a cultural experience and that, uh, and the, the flavor, the visual, the, the sound, the music. Everything was transporting you to, to that part of the world where this food is from. And, and New York, uh, it resonated. You know, it resonated, yeah.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So it's about identity, cultural. There's some politics in it because you're asserting your culture, your identity. It's not just individual identities. National identity also, right? You've seen people eat in one specific space. But it's also pioneering. You're pioneering literally. You are a trailblazer in, you know, in one specific space, in this case the American space, uh, and you're doing this alongside other culture that actually asserting themselves, the Indian, the- the Chinese and so on.
The question is that I raised at the beginning here, why don't we see enough African restaurant, for instance knowing what you just describe? And I don't think I'm exaggerating. You go to any major American cities. Forget the small town. Any major, and you say, "I wanna eat some African food," people ask us this question all the time, and we don't have recommendations for them often because it's so limited, right? You go, um, in, in a place even like Washington, eventually you find Ethiopian, Ethiopian, co, ch- wh- what about the Nigerians? Where are the Senegalese? Where are the Congolese? We just said it's as diverse as the continent. Yeah, the cuisine is (laughs) as diverse as the continent, yet we don't see that diver... We see the diversity in people. African immigrants are all over the place like I described again, the scientists. We don't see the Pierre Thiams. Why is it such a rarity? What are the challenges there?
Pierre Thiam: Eh, many of them, many of them, and, uh, I will start with the disruption of colonization that really played a big role on us. That disruption created this mentality. We tend to not often even put so much value to our food. And I'm giving you an example, and that example that happened to me when I did this project in Lagos to open a restaurant on Victoria Island, which is like the r- prime areas of Lagos. And that was a first restaurant that was serving West African-inspired cuisine at an upscale level.
And that example of Lagos, you can't find it duplicated in most major cities of Africa. If you go to the downtown areas where the best addresses are, you will see French, you will see Italian, you will see Japanese, you will see all kind of cuisines, and oftentimes what's missing is the local cuisine. And that's, this is this mindset, that we are not thinking of ourselves in these places, you know. And we have sometimes even stopped ourselves from even thinking of developing our cuisine to that level. And it doesn't need to be a stretch. There is, we have plenty to be at that level.
When we opened Lagos, and up to today, Nok by Alara is the destination in Lagos, is the place. You go online, you look into restaurants, and it's like the locals as well as the expatriates, 'cause the expatriates are looking for those flavors. They, they're here. Why they gonna be looking for French food when they are in Lagos? So that's, that's what's been happening, and that's that same problem that we're having here. That's one of the reasons.
Another reason being, America has had obviously a tricky, uh, relationship with Africa in its history, and that relationship has also created th- lots of propaganda. I mean you, in your system, in your medium, the media have played a role in, in really telling a story of Africa that is not the story that we know. And that story of Africa has created some kind of a, a mistrust among our potential clients or potential customers. People don't think of Africa as the place where they will go to have, enjoy a wonderful meal. That was the case.
I mean, it's going to change. I know it's changing and I'm, I can see it now. I mean, yes, we are pioneering, but look at today. You look at New York City. There are restaurants like Tatiana, you cannot have a, a reservation at Tatiana unless you, you book it like, you know, six months before. And that's a cuisine that's proudly West African-inspired, by my boy, Kwame. Good example, another one, another, uh, Nigerian brother, um, doing the same thing in Brooklyn Department of Culture.
So those, those are real, real example that tells you that it's getting there. This year, there are, I think there are four or f- four or five cookbooks that are coming out in, in the US that are inspired by West African food. And that's really a first, never seen before. The fact is this cuisine not only is delicious, but it's also a cuisine that's timely because the conscious consumer that is the growing number of consumers are looking for a food that's plant-based, that's diverse.
There's also the fact that Africa is the last frontier. People are now more curious and they are looking into, thanks to the media, the Food Network and all that have popularized the food to a point where people are now more comfortable into exploring other cultures. And they're realizing that this cuisine, especially the cuisine from this part of the world, is the cuisine that answers all those challenges that we are facing, you know. Our world, we're facing challenges of like, uh, food that's not diversified. We're eating the same grains we're eating s- and now we're looking for plant-based diets now.
That's what West African cuisine is. It's plant-based at its core, you know. It's like leafy vegetables, these beans, these grains. All of those are coming, and then the protein, at the lesser scale. And the method of usi- of cooking are so full of flavors. It's not the spicy thing that people want us to believe. Yes, we put some heat to it, but as, that's also optional, and we talk about it in our cookbooks, know, but the myth is making you think, oh, this West African food is unhealthy, oh, it's too spicy. It's far from the truth. It's really far.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: I think when Chinese food was trying to break into the space, they had, they faced similar, uh, challenges as well, so did the Japanese. I mean imagine people trying to each sushi. It was not always (laughs) easy, you know?
Pierre Thiam: Yeah, I was here.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: All the people in the world know it's raw fish, yeah? So, it, it, but there's an issue of packaging maybe also, how, our presentation. I mean you were talking about the French, uh, culture, the French, uh, traditions there. Even the rating is French. Michelin. Everybody want to be Michelin (laughs). So maybe there's also restructuring of it, so, unless it's check-marked by Michelin, you don't exist, you know, in so many ways. The, the old system.
So the question to you is, is presentation one of the challenge? You know, the French are the, the e- the exceptional in doing presentation, you know. They, they make a couple dots on your plates, they put some [inaudible 00:27:05] circle to it, and it's gonna cost you 50 bucks, and everybody says, "You need to try this stuff." And you're like, "What exactly I'm trying?" Right? So there's presentation is also a part of it. Tradition as well. One challenge we face a lot, at least I have seen in my experience, you travel to the US, you find African restaurant, uh, just to- speaking on the side, sometimes service is a problem, you know?
Uh, in Washington, I know the restaurant where the food is really good, but if you're going to go to that restaurant, you better eat before you leave your house (laughs), because when you get there (laughs), it's gonna take you two hours, an hour and a half before they bring you your food. The food will be good, but you'll be so angry at that point, you may not even be there. So the last thing I want to do is to bring my American friend to a restaurant where I know I have to eat at my house before I go to that restaurant because the service is so lousy. So is that also something that we need to, to train ourself to bring up? Because time is not elastic in this space. Time is elastic in Africa. We're not often in a hurry. We, we have time to enjoy the food with our friends. Is that, uh-
Pierre Thiam: Uh, of course.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Is that as the time deficit, that's a challenge as well?
Pierre Thiam: Well, yeah, and that's a challenge that's easy to fix, really. I mean what happened oftentimes you go to those restaurants that you're mentioning, those are mom-and-pops restaurant, that just like entrepreneurs who have no background in, in the food business, really, who, and who know how to cook a couple of dishes from home a- and, and decide to, to open a restaurant, but there's more to that than a restaurant, you know, that you mentioned the service is a part of the restaurant. The packaging, the presentation, the plating, all of it is part of the restaurant.
Most importantly, the mis en place. Mis en place is what allows you to have your, your, your menu ready so that when the customer comes and he orders, the, the dish arrives to the plate, to the table within 15 minutes. All of those things, there is a education. So, these people that you go to in, in Senegal, you go to a restaurant and, and you wait for two hours for your dish to arrive, that's because, eh, they have just first thought of opening a restaurant as an eating place that would cook those dishes, but they haven't had the, the structure that's necessary.
So, it's not something that's, uh, typical of a culture, you know. It's, it's just about having the right people doing this profession, and, and that can be easily fixed.
So, again, and, and the plating that you're talking about, it's all relative. Like the, we have beautiful dishes, and they can be presented in a beautiful way without compromising, without having to, to mimic the French way of plating, because of these beautiful colors that come into our dish. You have like an opportunity to take your plate as a, a canvas, really, and turn it into something that will be attractive to the eye. You have it in the tradition. I mean I, I go to Palms in, in Senegal or in Nigeria and sometimes the, a ball is presented to you in its simplicity, but it's so beautiful.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Absolutely. I was at Terroubi, um, a few months ago in Dakar, and just the way they would plate their seafood and some dishes- everything's beautiful. I cannot resist but take a picture and post it on Instagram. So that means Africa need... training is important, right, to commercialize this thing? And, uh, not commercialize in a negative way, but to repackage the shoot so that it's palatable to the eye.
Pierre Thiam: You ea- eat with your eyes first (laughs). You eat with your eyes and-
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Exactly. It's all in the eyes first, huh? It's the eyes, it's the smell, the mixture, and now, and then is the food, then is the touch. So in terms of those entrepreneurs like yourself who are trying to eke out a space in an American setting, it's not just the food, it's not just the creativity. You need to get the finance. Is that an area that is also challenging or not? Because we see restaurants come and go. I presume it's not just about presentation, it's not about-
Pierre Thiam: Right, yeah.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... food. The sustainability itself is challenging.
Pierre Thiam: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It's a, it's a tough business. It's a tough business where every penny counts. So you have to make sure you have your accounting right as well. And I've learned that the hard way. When I first opened my restaurant, my first restaurant, I knew the kitchen, but I also didn't realize that I had to know the accounting, and that, that would easily, after four years, we had to close that restaurant, but I never gave up because I knew that people wanted this products. So that's when I opened my second restaurant with a better understanding of the accounting part.
That's the restaurant business, you know? It's hard to find the investment because, unless you have it tight, unless you have a concept that works, and, and that concept needs to be well put. After two sit-down restaurants in New York and two sit-down in Lagos and Dakar, I realized that New York City for me was a place where the direction of the restaurant w- system would be the fast casual, and that's where the restaurant is going, the industry is going, and even those so-called Michelin-star restaurant are realizing they're not sustainable.
A lot of them are like just there because either sponsors or they are in the direction of closing. I have close friends in the restaurant, the top ones. René, René Redzepi, for instance, at Noma, which is like the top for a long time, he is like, phasing out. He closes, he's closing officially in two years, and he's going in the B- CPG business. CPG?
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: What is the CPG?
Pierre Thiam: CPG is a, you know, being in the mass production, in the supermarkets, which is what I've done with, with Yolele. We have Yolele in supermarkets now, in, in Whole Foods. We have Yolele at Target, we have Yolele at Mayo and at Sprouts. Because that's the way for you to reach a wider audience. For me, that's a, that started with realizing that there is still going to be some people who would be intimidated by entering an African restaurant and sitting down and looking at the dish that says poisson braise or kedjenou or thieboudienne, and they are just like scared to try it.
So, fast casual was the answer to me. You come to the restaurant and that's how I have, I have two Teranga restaurants in New York. They're fast casual. You enter and you see the menu on the board, and you decide what's going to be on your plate. You want the red rice, you want the u- onion sauce, you want the fufu, you want the acheke. And you decide gradually what's going to be on your bowl. You want the fonio. And then you decide what protein you're going to have on your bowl. Is it go- going to be the roasted salmon with the charmoula topping, or is it going to be the grilled chicken with onion, and then with, with lemon marinated, and/or the veals, you know, the...
And so those dis- different ways of presenting just these West African cuisine, and I go abroad West Africa, and that's intentional, too. I never wanted to limit myself to Senegal. I really wanted this cuisine to also be a way of decolonizing myself. You know, these borders are not real and this food transcends the borders. So with the f- fast casual approach, I was able to do that, and people have been able to just come to it comfortably. And you look at the Teranga restaurant, we have a Midtown location on 53rd and Lexington, oh, we have a Harlem location on 110 and Fifth Avenue, when you enter it, you are surprised by the diversity. People from all backgrounds, like you know, hipsters, Indians, Chinese, American Caucasians, and Africans are together coming and comfortably having these different foods because they're comfortable. They're not intimidated. The setting is inviting, but still having an experience.
And that were, that took me to the next level. As I'm getting to the f- uh, Teranga, I also knew that it was an opportunity to educate and to bring our ingredients. Why are not our ingredients are not available in the market? Why isn't fonio in the market? So that's when I decided to bring packaging that would be an opportunity for economic prosperity for the small farming communities in Africa. So there are so many opportunities that come.
We brought fonio, and that was, what seven years ago, in one supermarket first, when Whole Foods were opening in ma- in Harlem. And today we are in all the Whole Foods in America, and we have a diversity of fonio products. We have chips, we have fonio pilafs, the yassa, the jollof. You know, you can go and get them directly. You have them online now.
So this is to tell you that people are ready for these African flavors. People are ready to try it. People are ready because they know it's having impact, it's good for their health. We even introduced our products to industries like the brewery. We have fonio beer now. We have collaborations with like Brooklyn Brewery. This is, just came out in the, in the market this week, at this, this past week, actually. At Whole Foods, you can go and have fonio rising beer. That's like the third collaboration we have on fonio beer with Brooklyn Brewery and Whole Foods.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: It's very impressive that where in this case, as you look at the space, I call you a pioneer, a trailblazer, other people be looking into your footsteps and following into those footsteps. What is the outlook, briefly, what's, uh, what do you see the outlook for African cuisine in the United States, African cuisines in Europe, like we say?
Pierre Thiam: Oh, it, it's brilliant. Like I said, this journey, I've seen how these cuisines have arrived. It always started here in New York. I remember when Japanese sushi that you mentioned was starting, it was like in the late '90s, not even later than that, in the late '90s, before that, there was no sushis in here. I remember when Thai food was arriving in New York. I remember when Mexican food was arriving in New York. Those things that you guys see now here, they were not here. In the '90s, they were not here. In the 2000s, Mexican were not here. You would see traces of it in Texas, but it was not as widespread as it is now. And those cuisines have their limitations. Africa is so vast, has so much to offer, and there is so much creativity that's coming from that continent.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So we just, we have just started scratching the surface.
Pierre Thiam: Absolutely.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Okay (laughs). So on that note, Pierre Thiam, I like to thank you for joining us on Into Africa today and sharing your perspectives, which I'm sure our listeners will appreciate.
Pierre Thiam: Thank you.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Thank you very much, yeah.
Pierre Thiam: Ah, it's my pleasure, Mvemba. It's a pleasure (laughs).
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Thank you for listening. We want to have more conversations about Africa. Tell your friends. Subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts. You can also read our analysis and reports at CSIS.org/Africa. So long.