Born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, the bustling and culturally diverse West African metropolis, Thiam pays homage to traditional West African cuisine through his thoughtful approach to food. He is currently the Co-Founder of Yolélé Foods, a purpose-driven African food company launched in 2017 that specializes in African superfoods. Thiam is also the Executive Chef at the celebrated Nok by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria. His pan-African fine dining menu brings an elevated experience of the African diaspora onto the table. Clientele includes the Who's Who of Africa including Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, the Emir of Kano and the King of Morocco.
Based in New York City, Pierre Thiam Catering introduces contemporary interpretations of ethnic flavors to a diverse, savvy clientele, including UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, world renowned artist, Kehinde Wiley, and global icon, Dikembe Mutombo.
He has authored two groundbreaking cookbooks. His first book, Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal was a nominated finalist of the IACP Julia Child Cookbook Award as well as a Special Jury Award Winner at The Gourmand World Cookbook in Paris. It is currently featured in Cultural Expressions section at the Smithsonian’s New Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC. His second book, SENEGAL: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl was nominated James Beard Award for Best International Cookbook.
Thiam has been featured on numerous TV programs including Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, CNN's Inside Africa and the Food Network's Iron Chef.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dakar Senegal.
What inspired you to become a Chef?
I never wanted to become a chef. In my culture, cooking belonged to women.
I was a student in physics and chemistry. I stumbled into the restaurant world while in NY. I was hired as a busboy in a restaurant. There, I discovered the fascinating world of the kitchen. 30 years later, I am still in the kitchen.
Why did you get interested in cuisine?
Cuisine was always a part of my life. My mother and aunt loved to cook. I grew up appreciating good food. At first, when i started working in restaurants in NY, it was just a job to save money for my studies. Gradually, I fell in love with it. At the time, there was practically no African food in NY to the exception of a couple of Ethiopians. My mission became to introduce the cuisine of my origins to this wonderful food city.
How is Yolélé and the supergrain, Fonio, transforming African societies?
Yolele’s mission is to open markets for smallholder communities in Africa. Fonio is an ancient grain that grows in poor soils. It is nutritious, drought resistant and quite appropriate for the challenges of climate change those communities are facing. Fonio is cultivated in a region called Sahel, that’s located south of the Sahara desert (spanning from Senegal, Mali, burkina Faso, Northern Nigeria, Benin…). By turning fonio into an world class crop, we have the capacity to transform this region, which among the poorest in the world, into an export economy.
What was that critical moment or turning that made you a leading advocate for responsible tourism, as well as a spokesperson for the rich culinary history of Africa and its Diaspora?
After working for years in various restaurants of NYC (mostly french and Italian), I began working in a Soho restaurant that served global ethnic food. The executive chef, Geoffrey Murray became a mentor and a friend. When I was promoted as chef de cuisine, I saw it as an opportunity for me to introduce dishes from my origins. The positive reaction of the patrons and media encouraged me in going deeper into revisiting the food of my origins and my culture.
Can you tell us what you are most excited about right now?
I am very excited about my new NY restaurant Teranga, the opportunity to have a signature menu in the Pullman hotel in Dakar and to be the executive chef of Nok by Alara in Lagos.