How One Chef Is Changing the Narrative of West African Cuisine

chef pierre thiam working the line

Pierre Thiam sits in a room in his home in California stacked with a variety of books, among which are three of his published works on Senegalese food, its origins, and his star ingredient—fonio. Below the bookshelf is a display of products from his burgeoning African brand called Yolélé. The multicolored packets of fonio pilaf, an African dish akin to paella, had a story to tell even from afar.

When Thiam set out to bring historically underutilized African ingredients to the forefront of modern food, he knew right away that he’d have to do more than just import grains. He’d also need to fight deep-set misconceptions about West African cuisine.

In a culinary landscape as wide-ranging as New York’s, West African food and its ingredients rarely ever feature. For years, the image of African countries has been tainted with the negative press often associated with war, despotism and poverty.

“Many West African crops, vegetables [and] fruits are rarely contextualized with respect to seasons; they are labeled foods of hunger, famine, [but] never in praise of the [seasons], which minimizes their value,” says Ozoz Sokoh, a culinary anthropologist and curator of Feast Afrique, a digital library dedicated to West African culinary heritage.

In such a climate, Thiam’s rise to success is emblematic of how being a purpose-driven entrepreneur means doing double duty to drive change in America. To succeed, they have to both educate and serve, making for a far more challenging journey to the top.

For the Love of Chemistry

His story began in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where he grew up around an eclectic mix of French, Lebanese and Vietnamese communities, owing to the country’s geography and colonial history. “I would walk from school to home, stopping by a food vendor from Togo or Benin,” Thiam says, reminiscing. “We have such a rich and diverse food culture.”

When he visited his grandparents during vacations, he would eat dishes made of fonio, a grain in the millet family that was only found in the south of Senegal at the time. “In Dakar, there was a colonial mentality where [people] prefer to eat things coming from the west. We eat baguettes every single day! But we don’t even grow wheat; that’s the sad part,” Thiam says. This made it challenging for local grains to find a sizable market even where it was grown.

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Following the 1987-1988 student riots in Dakar, Thiam intended to go to Ohio to complete his degree in physics and chemistry, stopping in New York City en route to visit a friend. In a twist of fate, he was forced to stay in the city after he got robbed. To earn his way to Ohio, he took on a job as a busboy at a restaurant in the West Village.

 “I’m still on my way to Ohio,” Thiam says jokingly.

During his shifts, he keenly observed how different dishes were prepared. “I was fascinated by the alchemy; the plates looked so beautiful,” Thiam says. He was now passionate to pursue a different kind of chemistry than the one he set out to study.

Thiam then took on roles at different restaurants, but this time, as a chef. From Italian restaurants to a French bistro, Thiam expanded his culinary horizons over the next few years.

Things changed when he joined Boom, a popular restaurant in SoHo in 1992, as its head chef. The restaurant’s executive chef was curious about Thiam’s native food. Within a few years of working at Boom in Manhattan, he was given the chance to explore his African roots for the first time on a tasting menu at the restaurant’s Miami location. He was pleasantly surprised at how much diners enjoyed the food from his homeland.

“When I came back to New York after that, I was on a mission,” Thiam says. “It’s like New York City is the capital of the world for food, and Africa is absent.” Seeing that food with its roots in West Africa had an audience gave him a new sense of purpose. Still, diners’ palates took some convincing.

Bringing a Quaint Culture to the World Stage

Thiam became intentional about his path forward, both through his food and books. By the early 2000s, he owned two restaurants in Brooklyn, Yolélé and Le Grand Dakar, which were acclaimed as havens for the African culture. The restaurants closed after several years of operation due to a failed partnership and rising rents, respectively. But on their way out, the restaurants did the important job of putting West African food on the map.

Thiam had become an ambassador of sorts by this time, lecturing at culinary institutes, appearing on TV and radio shows and bringing West African food to the limelight through his work. His first book, Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, was published in 2008 and shortlisted for the prestigious Julia Child Award.

When traveling through Senegal for his second book, Thiam wanted to understand the roots of the country’s cuisine and the womenfolk who inspired it. It was during this visit that he got to eat fonio-based delicacies once again—the kind he had when he visited his grandparents. However, this time his appreciation for it was comparable to an artist finding his muse. The grain is nutrient-rich, climate-resilient, great for the soil and cooks within five minutes. Fonio is what the world needed more of, and knew nothing about, like much of the African pantry.

A bigger problem than the lack of knowledge about African food customs occurred to him: People didn’t have access to the grains. He realized that if the farmers who were growing fonio for subsistence grew more of it for export they would benefit from new economic opportunities. This would keep smallholder farmers from fleeing Senegal to escape acute poverty.

Thiam had found his next mission.

The Inception of Yolélé

Going to market with a novel grain like fonio needed expertise in logistics and branding for the American market, which Thiam lacked.

Enter specialty foods expert Philip Teverow.

Back in the 1980s, when Teverow was working at the grocery chain Dean & DeLuca, he was instrumental in bringing a formerly uncommon grain called quinoa to the U.S. Today, quinoa is used as a protein source and rice replacement globally.

Teverow first met Thiam at a block party hosted by Le Grand Dakar in 2010. But it was not until 2014 that they got reacquainted when Teverow reached out to Thiam after reading an article about his vision to help communities of subsistence farmers. In 2015, they drew up a business plan for Yolélé.

Thiam and Teverow spent the next few months identifying suppliers, vetting the supply chain and bringing fonio into the U.S., as per the processing standards here. It took months of working out the nitty-gritty of importing and processing the grain before a Yolélé product was sold.

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Yolélé’s flagship product, the fonio chips, was introduced at one location of Whole Foods in 2017. The idea with these chips was to meet the consumer halfway by “using this ingredient in a way that is already accessible,” as Teverow puts it.

“I am entrepreneurial, so to a certain extent, I am optimistic. But [Thiam]…he is very optimistic,” says Teverow. “We have complementary personalities.” The feeling is mutual, as Thiam used the same words to describe working with Teverow.

From Senegal to American Supermarkets

For its part, Yolélé has become a towering enterprise.

The growing interest surrounding healthy snacking has served as a fillip to the brand’s expansion into mainstream supermarkets. Since Yolélé’s debut in 2017, its products have expanded to over 2,000 stores across the U.S. Its products can be found on major grocery delivery apps too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, online sales skyrocketed, and Yolélé has maintained that momentum since.

Yolélé has helped over 700 West African farming families, and the company expects to reach over 2,400 such families in the near term, as they hope to scale their operations internationally.

In January, the company received a $1.98 million grant from the U.S. Agency of International Development through their Africa-focused investment initiative Prosper Africa. This grant will not only help scale up Yolélé’s operations in the U.S., but also establish a processing center in Mali, which, as Teverow explains, would potentially be a center of distribution to markets globally.

Thiam describes his journey as “riding the wave” from one venture to the next, in search of opportunities to share his culture with a wider audience. In 2019, Thiam launched a fast-casual restaurant in Harlem called Teranga, and of course, fonio was on the menu. In 2021, they opened a second location in Midtown East.

Thiam’s vision to bring undervalued grains to mainstream markets is also an exigency for African culinary heritage. “Fonio was really like the Trojan Horse,” Thiam says. “It was not just about fonio, but about products like fonio that are underutilized and disappearing. Opening markets for them can happen only if you make it sexy and attractive.”

Feature photo by Karston “Skinny” Tannis.