It is a warm July evening in Barcelona, and in a few days, Serigne Mbaye will return to Senegal. The trip will be his second as an adult, but he’s no tourist — the New York-born 24-year-old cook spent part of his childhood there. Upon arrival, Mbaye plans to research the food culture that forms the basis of so much American cooking and that has shaped his palate. He’ll eat, study, and spend time with family. But that’s days away. Right now, Mbaye is cooking in Barcelona.
In the kitchen of the Cotton House Hotel, a chic, stately 19th-century building in the city center, Mbaye has accompanied Pierre Thiam, the celebrated U.S.-based Senegalese chef and author of award-winning cookbooks. Thiam, whose acclaimed Harlem restaurant Teranga opened earlier this year, hosted a dinner series through the end of the month. Mbaye has taken note of Thiam’s ability to riff on traditional West African dishes in various markets. Over the past several years, Mbaye has been on the road and holed up in kitchens across America, in an effort to shape his own culinary identity.
New Orleans is one of many cities where Mbaye has lived, but it’s the only one that by virtue of its food, culture, and even colonial history references the country he calls his homeland. He’s explaining this 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 point he’s making is the same as calas versus beignets. The beignet, the poofy and powdered sugar-covered fried dough long ago cemented its reputation as the city’s signature sweet. At a glance, that can seem an innocuous turn in history, but under marginal scrutiny, it’s a story about how colonization obscures people and their culture.
The popularity of calas can be traced to West Africa and the omnipresent imprint of centuries of forced migration of African people across the Atlantic Ocean. From the 1720s to 1860, from Louisiana to South Carolina, rice was a lucrative commodity in the region. From the 18th century through the early 20th, Creole women of color peddled sweet rice fritters to the churchgoers and coffee drinkers of New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, traditions that led to near-religious expeditions to today’s landmarks, such as Café du Monde. In his own cooking, Mbaye understands that the origins of gumbo didn’t rely on French technique, but rather African plant material. The subtext is subtle. It’s okra — not the flour-based roux — in gumbo that inspires him. His goals as a chef are clear: to find himself through the pursuit of Senegalese cuisine, and to share his observations with the world.
For Thiam’s part, he’s seen great potential in Mbaye’s outlook. “I always saw in Serigne a focused, talented, and ambitious younger brother,” he says. For Mbaye to have a meaningful impact in celebrating African cuisines, Thiam believed he needed to go home. “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.”
Growing up in boarding schools in rural Senegal, away from family, Mbaye developed an ability to find home in many places and forms — an invaluable quality on his journey of intercontinental cooking. This year Mbaye has bounced between a stint at a three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Paris. While Thiam, a mentor, has undoubtedly helped open some of those kitchen doors, on matters of cooking, Mbaye has proven he’s willing to put in the work to prove himself.
The challenging part is what you might expect. “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 practice paid off for him in 2016, when he landed a job at Commander’s Palace. The landmark restaurant along the Garden District’s St. Charles trolley line happens to be one of the busiest in the country. It’s also one of the most storied in New Orleans, providing Mbaye with not just the training, but the visibility that comes with aligning with an institution. In just four months, Mbaye learned all the stations and was promoted to line cook.
In Senegal, cooking is a gendered activity, and for young men, even still, it is uncommon. But Mbaye’s love of food was always unmistakable, and long before boarding school, some of his earliest memories in life were entertaining alongside his mother, who taught him benachin, the Wolof word denoting the “one-pot” style of cooking found 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 information on West African language and culture. Wolof is both the most widely spoken language in Senegal, and also the name of the people who speak it. And jollof, the rice dish that’s beloved — and vigorously debated — throughout West Africa, is actually another name for Wolof. In other words, to speak Wolof, or to speak of them, is to speak rice. Mbaye’s favorite 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 couple weeks ago, Mbaye posted an Instagram update from Touba, just east of Dakar. Who knows where he’ll end up next? Mbaye’s food may tell us where he’s from, but given his love for Senegal, his rigor, and his resume, where he goes will be just as gratifying to watch.