DIALOGUE: Pierre Thiam
Senegal-born and now Bay Area-based chef, author, and entrepreneur Pierre Thiam gained widespread renown with Teranga, his restaurant in New York City. He is the author of three cookbooks: Yolélé, Senegal: From the Source to the Bowl, and Fonio: An Ancient Grain Rediscovered.
Thiam also founded Yolélé, a retail company, and runs the L+P foundation with his partner, Lisa, which focuses on training young chefs in contemporary West African cuisine. Yolélé sells fonio — a heritage grain considered one of the oldest cultivated cereals — and other products grown sustainably in West Africa. Thiam believes strongly that “fonio can change the world” not just on its own considerable merits but also in conjunction with other traditional crops suited to arid climates and poor soil.
RoundGlass Food: What dishes do you make for yourself that function as medicine as well as food?
Pierre Thiam: The idea of food as medicine is ingrained in Senegalese culture. Recently I was feeling fatigued and achy so in the morning I made this grain porridge that my mom and grandmother used to cook for me. It could be either rice or fonio, cooked in chicken broth or water with lots of ginger, and finished with lime juice and then served with whatever spicy condiments you like. It’s pure comfort food, and it always works. It operates in a miraculous way; I felt fine right after.
There’s an infusion I also take quite often. Fresh ginger grated into water, with lots of fresh cayenne added. My great-grandmother used to add a little liquor made from sugar cane, but you can substitute rum or leave it out. I make this and sip it very slowly right before going to bed. I cover myself, and sweat during the night, and always feel better the next day. We would have it for malaria, but it works for any kind of cold or flu.
RG: You’ve lived and traveled a lot of places. Do you cook differently when you move somewhere new?
PT: I definitely embrace a few new ingredients and recipes wherever I go. I’m not sure that means that my diet changes, since I’ll include them in my traditional diet, incorporate them into my repertoire. I always come back to that memory food one way or another, but it gets richer. And that’s the great thing about food — it transcends borders.
RG: Do you think of yourself as a traditional cook?
PT: No, I wouldn’t say I’m traditional. When I look at the food I grew up with and compare it to what I cook now there are similarities, but I’ve added a lot of creativity and knowledge that I’ve gathered along the way in my travels.
RG: Is there particular vegetable or dish that you have a strong connection to?
I really love okra. It takes me back to my childhood, and I’ve always loved it. I know opinions on okra are not unanimous, and I’ve never understood that. I loved the way my mom would prepare it, in the traditional gumbo style, but as I tried it in different ways it always hit the spot for me.
RG: Do you have any rituals or practices in the kitchen to help calm you or clear your mind?
PT: Absolutely. To me, cooking is a form of meditation. Whenever I enter the kitchen, the space has to be clean, so I start by cleaning. I got my start as a dishwasher, and I have so much respect for that. And once I start cooking, I try to keep things clean as much as possible. The cleaner the environment is, the clearer my mind is, and my creativity can flow.
I always try to have a conversation with the ingredients. For me it begins at the market. I need to know if the ingredients are fresh. I have to look at them, touch them, smell them. Those are all ways of communicating.
So cooking is a meditation, and it works best when you enter the kitchen with all your senses present and involved. That’s how you hear the ingredients talking back to you. That’s the lesson my mom and grandmother taught me, because they didn’t have written recipes. They would laugh at me when I tried to write them down, asking “How many teaspoons of salt?” or “How long does it cook for?” They’d say “use your senses and you’ll know.”
RG: What ingredient would you like people to eat more of — though I suspect you might say fonio?
PT: Fonio, yes, but also other underutilized ingredients. We help to save biodiversity by eating diversely, and it’s good for our own health too. The diversity of your diet is key. If you look at the research, most chronic diseases are directly related to our diet and the change in our diet that began 50 to 100 years ago when we focused on just a few plants and grains and began ignoring thousands of other foods. And the foods that we ignore start to disappear. So that’s why I say fonio, and sorghum, and millet, and others. Why are we just eating rice and corn and soy? It’s sad, and it’s impacting our health and our planet.
Yolélé is not a fonio company. We started with it because it checks all the boxes — it’s easy to grow, it replenishes the soil, it’s nutritious, it cooks in five minutes — but we knew that by growing the market for fonio the danger would be that farmers would treat it like a cash crop and grow nothing else. We want to stay away from monoculture, so now we’re focusing on other crops that farmers would grow in rotation with fonio.
So our next project is the bambara bean, a type of groundnut that’s amazing not just because of its nutrition but because while it looks and tastes like peanuts it doesn’t have the peanut allergen. This was a crop that was disrupted by colonialism; in Senegal’s case the French did not have a use for it so it fell out of favor, becoming a country person crop. These are crops we want to sell, because apart from being nutritious and delicious they improve the soil and provide a sustainable living to the farmers. We’re not inventing anything; we’re just returning to the traditional ways these farmers used to grow for thousands of years.
RG: What advice do you have for home cooks?
PT: Buy my books! There are lots of great recipes in there.
DIALOGUE is an ongoing series of conversations about food & wellbeing.