Senegalese chef Serigne Mbaye learned to cook in kitchens in New York City, Cleveland and Montpelier, Vermont. After traveling in Senegal, he decided to share the food of his homeland with diners. Mbaye is a senior line cook at Commander's Palace, and he hosts pop-up dinners in which he combines classical cooking techniques and African dishes. He presents a four-course dinner highlighting Senegalese dishes and French influences at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum Sept. 30. Mbaye spoke with Gambit about Senegalese cuisine and the pop-up.
What made you focus on Senegalese cuisine?
Serigne: (I was working in Cleveland) and I started wondering whether there were Senegalese chefs out there doing our cuisine. I found chef Pierre Thiam — he had two books, and one was this award-winning book that was one of the first cookbooks focused on West African cuisine. Shortly after that we became friends and he (advised) me to go back to my country to cook, so I went to Senegal last summer. I was there for about a month and a half, learning and understanding more about my culture and the cuisine. That's when I decided I wanted to come to New Orleans, because I had never been to the South. I chose New Orleans because when the (African) slaves left Senegal, they arrived in New Orleans.
What will you cook at the pop-up dinner?
S: I have all these cuisines that I had learned in the past, and I thought, "Why not create a pop-up dinner to show what I've learned and teach other people about African cuisine?" There's no fine dining African cuisine in New Orleans, and really, in America in general.
The first course is going to be sort of like a salad made with a grain we use a lot called fonio, which is like millet. I'll be serving it with watermelon, mint, pickled peaches and red onions and a tamarind vinaigrette. The second course will be a traditional Senegalese gumbo. The third course will be one of our most famous Senegalese dishes, thieboudienne, which is going to be made with redfish with seasonal vegetables. In Senegal, we would make every dish using whatever was fresh from the market, so I never know what vegetables I'll use until that day. There will definitely be okra in there, because it will be in season. I'll serve that with a spicy pesto and a tamarind jus. For dessert, there's another grain we use similar to fonio, but it's a sweet grain, and we normally eat it with sour cream and raisins. So I'm going to make it with sour cream, raisin coulis and some fruit.
How does Senegalese gumbo differ from Creole gumbo?
S: Gumbo is really from Senegal, and okra is one of the ingredients (slaves) brought (to New Orleans) from Senegal. Everybody has a history of where gumbo comes from, but before it was in New Orleans we ate it in Africa. It's very different how it's prepared, because it's not made with a roux. The French (use) a lot of roux. We have one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, and we use okra to thicken our gumbo, and we also don't use a lot of fat. We get our fat content from palm oil. We don't use any type of butter or dairy. I'll put (in) the palm oil, green onions and we use a variety of seafood. Sometimes it's dehydrated, which gives it a more seafood flavor. I'm using this dehydrated seafood that I brought back from Senegal, and it gives it a more modern flavor.
New Orleans has a very special culture and many similarities with Senegal. Especially beignets — everywhere you go around 6 or 7 o'clock, it could be in the countryside or the city, you will find beignets on all the street corners (in Senegal). When I first came to New Orleans, I (went) to the French Quarter. As I was looking around I saw so many things that reminded me of Senegal, and specifically Cafe du Monde. I went in the line and waited for my order, and when I sat down and I ate them, I thought, "Wow, this tastes just like Senegal."