Written by Anna Trapido
Photographs by Evan Sung
Styling by Pierre Thiam
Chef and social entrepreneur Pierre Thiam (pronounced Chee-am) was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal. He arrived in America in 1989 intending to continue his studies in physics and chemistry at Baldwin Wallace College, Ohio, but he says, “During a stopover in New York, I had a disaster. All my money was stolen so, instead of returning home, I opted to find work as a busboy in a restaurant.”
Over time, Pierre moved from clearing tables and washing dishes to cooking kitchen-staff meals. He says, “At first, I had very little cooking experience, so I cooked the home food I knew.” These Senegalese classics were so popular with his colleagues that some were ultimately moved onto the restaurant’s main menu.
And so it was that scientific studies were swapped for a culinary career. Pierre underwent a decade-long, arduous apprenticeship that saw him cooking in the kitchens of numerous New York fine-dining establishments.
Having worked his way up the food ladder (culminating as chef de cuisine at Soho’s Boom restaurant), Pierre opened the Brooklyn-based bistro Yolele in 2000.
Although this iconic African eatery has since closed, Pierre continues to offer contemporary African-influenced cuisine to the Big Apple’s diplomatic and business elite by way of Pierre Thiam Catering, as well as his fast-casual New York-based African restaurant, Teranga.
He has also authored two ground-breaking cookbooks: Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal (which was a nominated finalist of the First Book: The Julia Child Award at the 2009 International Association of Culinary Professionals [IACP] Cookbook Awards) and Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl (which was nominated for Best International Cookbook at the 2016 James Beard Awards).
In 2015, Pierre became the executive chef at Nok by Alara restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria. This super-stylish space (which was designed by internationally acclaimed Ghanaian- British architect Sir David Adjaye) serves modern reconfigurations of African culinary classics. Pierre says, “Our aim is to show that African food can be elevated and presented in a contemporary setting without losing its identity.”
Mission accomplished. Africa’s epicurean elite (including patrons like Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka, the 14th Emir of Kano and the King of Morocco) savour signature dishes like palm-fruit soup with cocoyam dumplings, Yaji (a Nigerian suya spice mix) shrimp with a trio of ofada (a heritage rice variety grown in south-west Nigeria) balls and lamb mafé (a Senegalese stew).
Sweet-toothed types adore the chocolate tart with salted caramel and baobab ice cream. Seemingly unlimited in his gastronomic energy, 2018 also saw Pierre take on the role of executive chef at the Pullman Dakar Teranga Hotel in Senegal.
Pierre’s passion for social upliftment by way of African ingredients also manifests in his business, Yolélé Foods, which he describes as “a purpose-driven African food company launched in 2017 that specialises in African superfoods”.
The firm currently concentrates on the ancient grain fonio, which is sourced by way of local NGOs and smallholder producers across West Africa. Pierre sees an international market for it. He says, “American consumers are getting more conscious about what they eat. Fonio is gluten-free, sustainable and rich in protein and nutrients.” It should come as no surprise, then, that his fonio-focused Ted Talk has more than 1 million views on YouTube.
With so many plates spinning, Pierre now divides his time between Africa and the USA, creating moreish flavours and epicurean empowerment on both continents.