It’s a heat July night in Barcelona, and in just a few days, Serigne Mbaye will return to Senegal. The journey can be his second as an grownup, however he’s no vacationer — the New York-born 24-year-old cook dinner spent a part of his childhood there. Upon arrival, Mbaye plans to analysis the meals tradition that types the idea of a lot American cooking and that has formed his palate. He’ll eat, examine, and spend time with household. However that’s days away. Proper now, Mbaye is cooking in Barcelona.
Within the kitchen of the Cotton Home Lodge, a classy, stately 19th-century constructing within the metropolis middle, Mbaye has accompanied Pierre Thiam, the celebrated U.S.-based Senegalese chef and creator of award-winning cookbooks. Thiam, whose acclaimed Harlem restaurant Teranga opened earlier this 12 months, hosted a dinner sequence by means of the tip of the month. Mbaye has taken notice of Thiam’s capability to riff on conventional West African dishes in varied markets. Over the previous a number of years, Mbaye has been on the highway and holed up in kitchens throughout America, in an effort to form his personal culinary identification.
New Orleans is one in every of many cities the place Mbaye has lived, but it surely’s the one one which by advantage of its meals, tradition, and even colonial historical past references the nation he calls his homeland. He’s explaining this along with his characteristically disarming speech, embellished with a persistent grin and charming lilt.
“When our fathers — because I don’t use that other word, so I just call them our mothers and fathers — the ones in Charleston from Benin and Ghana, if you look at Charleston, they were known for growing rice,” Mbaye says. “Like, if you look at it, what is a classic gumbo? Seafood and okra. Back then, people didn’t use roux. So at the end of the day it’s the seafood and it’s okra”
The purpose he’s making is identical as calas versus beignets. The beignet, the poofy and powdered sugar-covered fried dough way back cemented its status as the town’s signature candy. At a look, that may appear an innocuous flip in historical past, however below marginal scrutiny, it’s a narrative about how colonization obscures folks and their tradition.
The recognition of calas will be traced to West Africa and the omnipresent imprint of centuries of compelled migration of African folks throughout the Atlantic Ocean. From the 1720s to 1860, from Louisiana to South Carolina, rice was a profitable commodity within the area. From the 18th century by means of the early 20th, Creole ladies of colour peddled candy rice fritters to the churchgoers and low drinkers of New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, traditions that led to near-religious expeditions to immediately’s landmarks, comparable to Café du Monde. In his personal cooking, Mbaye understands that the origins of gumbo didn’t depend on French method, however slightly African plant materials. The subtext is delicate. It’s okra — not the flour-based roux — in gumbo that evokes him. His objectives as a chef are clear: to search out himself by means of the pursuit of Senegalese delicacies, and to share his observations with the world.
For Thiam’s half, he’s seen nice potential in Mbaye’s outlook. “I always saw in Serigne a focused, talented, and ambitious younger brother,” he says. For Mbaye to have a significant impression in celebrating African cuisines, Thiam believed he wanted to go residence. “I believe that it’s important for him to immerse himself in the food of his roots,” he says. “That’s why I recommended that he travel in the countryside in particular, to connect with the culture and experience traditional foods.”
Rising up in boarding colleges in rural Senegal, away from household, Mbaye developed a capability to search out residence in lots of locations and types — a useful high quality on his journey of intercontinental cooking. This 12 months Mbaye has bounced between a stint at a three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Paris. Whereas Thiam, a mentor, has undoubtedly helped open a few of these kitchen doorways, on issues of cooking, Mbaye has confirmed he’s prepared to place within the work to show himself.
The difficult half is what you may anticipate. “The thing that can be kind of hard is that you don’t know nobody and nobody knows you,” he says. “I lived in Jersey, Cleveland, Vermont, California, and New Orleans. But I never lived anywhere in the States for more than two years.”
His nomadic cooking observe paid off for him in 2016, when he landed a job at Commander’s Palace. The landmark restaurant alongside the Backyard District’s St. Charles trolley line occurs to be one of many busiest within the nation. It’s additionally probably the most storied in New Orleans, offering Mbaye with not simply the coaching, however the visibility that comes with aligning with an establishment. In simply 4 months, Mbaye discovered all of the stations and was promoted to line cook dinner.
In Senegal, cooking is a gendered exercise, and for younger males, even nonetheless, it’s unusual. However Mbaye’s love of meals was all the time unmistakable, and lengthy earlier than boarding faculty, a few of his earliest reminiscences in life have been entertaining alongside his mom, who taught him benachin, the Wolof phrase denoting the “one-pot” fashion of cooking present in all quarters of the continent.
“A lot of people back home don’t have stoves, they have one burners,” Mbaye says. “You build your fire and you have one pot.”
Decoding benachin reveals a wealth of data on West African language and tradition. Wolof is each probably the most extensively spoken language in Senegal, and in addition the identify of the individuals who communicate it. And jollof, the rice dish that’s beloved — and vigorously debated — all through West Africa, is definitely one other identify for Wolof. In different phrases, to talk Wolof, or to talk of them, is to talk rice. Mbaye’s favourite iteration? “Rice pudding.
“Back in the day, when they had benachin, the rice left over the following day was for breakfast,” he says. “In Senegal we call it ‘so.’ You mix the leftover rice with fruit and condensed milk. As a kid growing up, I ate it a lot at my boarding school. As I developed my culinary skills I thought, ‘Why not bring back this dish?’ For me, this dish is always emotional, and with it, I’ve learned to show where I’m from.”
As of a pair weeks in the past, Mbaye posted an Instagram replace from Touba, simply east of Dakar. Who is aware of the place he’ll find yourself subsequent? Mbaye’s meals could inform us the place he’s from, however given his love for Senegal, his rigor, and his resume, the place he goes can be simply as gratifying to look at.
Stephen Satterfield is a meals author, multimedia producer, and co-founder of Whetstone Journal.
Sam Zucker is a author and photographer primarily based in Barcelona.