How does a chef get jazz-inspired?

Over the course of several years as Randy Weston and I worked on his autobiography “African Rhythms” (Duke University Press), we would frequently dine at one of two Senegalese restaurants in Brooklyn; the first on Fulton Street closed several years ago. Then came another inviting spot for thiebou jen (blue fish with red rice and vegetables) and assorted tasty Senegalese bites, Le Grand-Dakar, literally just around the corner from Randy’s brownstone. We’d dine there with assorted good company; perhaps TK Blue and other members of Randy’s African Rhythms band, usually accompanied by Randy’s African queen Fatoumata, and one celebratory evening after our book reading at Sista’s Place, with the poet Jayne Cortez and her husband, the great sculptor Mel Edwards. Once inside Le Grand-Dakar we were always greeted by the ever-cheerful and welcoming, slender, bespectacled chef-owner Pierre Thiam. One evening Pierre quite proudly laid a copy of his cookbook “Yolele!” on me and I was hooked, not only by his cuisine but by his obvious graciousness and love for Randy Weston and his music. More recently Pierre has moved on from Le Grand-Dakar to concentrate on his catering business. You may also have seen him on the chef competition Iron Chef America on the Food Network, doing good-natured battle with Iron Chef Bobby Flay.

Pierre Thiam was raised in Dakar, Senegal, a cosmopolitan city on the west coast of Africa. This bustling and culturally diverse city sparked his interest in the culinary arts at an early age. After graduating from the Physics and Chemistry department of C. A. Diop University, Thiam moved to New York in the late eighties and started working in various restaurants in the city.

In 2003, Thiam opened his first restaurant, Yolele, a visionary African bistro that received great acclaim and reviews from the leading media. His second restaurant, Le Grand-Dakar Restaurant, opened in 2004 and quickly became a cultural hub for the African diaspora in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Thiam now runs a successful catering company, Pierre Thiam Catering, which introduces a diverse, upscale New York clientele to a unique, contemporary take on ethnic flavors. Currently, Thiam serves as consulting chef at Soho’s Boom Restaurant in NY.

Our recent dialogue with Tidewater, Virginia-based drummer-bandleader-gourmand Jae Sinnett (check the Archives) on his cooking show exploits and the intersection of great music and fine cuisine, got me thinking about Pierre Thiam and his ongoing friendship with Randy and Fatou, and how that friendship and his support of Randy’s music started and has continued to grow. So obviously some questions were in order.

How were you introduced to Randy Weston’s music?

I met Randy when TK Blue, his saxophonist brought him to my restaurant for dinner. I only knew him at the time as the man behind “Hi Fly”. It’s only then that I really started listening to him. It was a revelation. I grew to admire Randy for his immense talent and for his love for Africa. I am truly blessed to be his friend. More than a friend he is a mentor and a father figure to me.

What’s been your experience with jazz music in general since you arrived in this country?

I was fortunate to be raised in a jazz-loving family. My father was a big fan of Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Jimmy Smith among others. My older brother, Jean Louis took to the guitar and his very first band was a jazz band (he is now playing professionally in Paris). Since I arrived in this country my love for the music only grew.

Pierre with some fresh catch for the cooking; on the beach at home in Senegal

How do you see good music and fine cuisine intersecting?

Good music and fine cuisine are a great combination. My best food is prepared while I am listening to music (mostly jazz but also some classical). Cooking, just like playing jazz music is very intuitive. The layers of flavors that come into play with certain dishes are similar to jazz music as it evokes the senses.

What role – if any – does music play in your life as a chef?

Music plays a great role when I seek inspiration either for a menu, when I am in the kitchen or for some downtime after a busy night. I really can’t see how it could happen without music (jazz in particular). Jazz music helps me find that center within me before, after and while I am cooking.

How have you evolved from restaurant owner to caterer?

The evolution was seamless because I have had my catering company since 97. My first restaurant didn’t come until 2003.

Clearly we had to have one of Pierre’s recipes to cap off this dialogue; so here’s one of his deserts…


Pierre at the market; doubtless seeking ingredients for this luscious desert!

ROASTED MANGO AND COCONUT RICE PUDDING
SOMBI
Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
½ cup honey
2 mangoes, peeled and sliced lengthwise
2 cups coconut milk
¼ cup agave (or brown sugar) to taste
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved (or 1 tsp. vanilla extract)
½ cup shredded coconut
1 cup cooked white rice
1 pinch salt
1-tablespoon lime juice

Procedure
1. In a sauté pan over medium heat, cook the honey until bubbly. Add the mango slices and glaze until they are well-coated and golden brown (5 minutes). Remove from the heat.
2. In a saucepan, combine the coconut milk, sweetener, vanilla, and 6 tablespoons of the shredded coconut.
3. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently for approximately 10 minutes.
4. Place the remaining 2 tablespoons shredded coconut in a dry pan and toast over low heat for 5 minutes. Set aside.
5. With a ladle, remove about a ½ cup of the coconut sauce and set aside.
6. Add the cooked rice to the remaining coconut sauce and cook slowly, stirring frequently until all the liquid is absorbed. Add the salt and lime juice.
7. To serve, divide the rice pudding among 4 to 6 individual bowls, surrounding rice with a pool of the reserved coconut sauce. Fan the mango slices over the rice and strew with the toasted coconut. Serve warm.


“Yolele!”, Pierre Thiam’s 2008 cookbook, with Adam Bartos’ photography, is chock full of plenty more goodies!

Contact: www.pierrethiam.com www.pierrethiamcatering.com

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