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Pierre Thiam Brings West African Hospitality to East Harlem

There are many ways of getting to know the celebrated Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam: by watching his TED Talk on the resiliency of the ancient grain fonio, the center of his purpose-driven African food company, Yolele. Or you can catch Pierre proudly sharing traditional coastal dishes in a Dakar waterfront restaurant with the late Anthony Bourdain in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown. Did we mention that Pierre is also the author of two acclaimed cookbooks celebrating Senegalese cuisine?

Chef Pierre Thiam is a chef, restaurateur, social entrepreneur, and culinary ambassador. He’s been in the restaurant industry for over 20 years, gaining notoriety as a culinary educator along the way. As a spokesperson for the rich culinary history of Africa and its Diaspora, the James Beard Award nominee is recognized as a leader in bringing the sophistication of West African flavors to the global palate. Jessica B. Harris, the acclaimed culinary historian, and author calls Pierre’s Senegalese food an “exuberant culinary voyage.”

Born and raised in Dakar, Senegal Chef Pierre’s culinary mission is to share cuisine and food from his native West Africa, a bustling and diverse metropolis. He came to New York City in the late eighties to pursue studies in physics and chemistry but found himself working in restaurants instead. In an interview with The New York Times, he tells food writer Tajal Rao that on his days off he cooked Senegalese food. He introduced Senegalese cuisine to staff meals at the Italian restaurants he worked at and often made them into daily specials. With frequent calls to his mother and aunts to write down recipes and hone his expertise, Pierre eventually went on to open two Senegalese restaurants in Brooklyn and start a catering business. Pierre has created space and respect for West African cuisine throughout his culinary career here in New York. He introduced signature dishes like mafe, a peanut and vegetable stew, that pay homage to the culinary traditions of his homeland with techniques he learned working in contemporary New York kitchens.

Aside from cooking West African cuisine at his restaurants, Pierre wanted to make African staples more readily available in the U.S. “My dream at the time was to introduce African food products, which I knew were quality products, but there was no place in New York that could present [African food] it the way I wanted. There wasn’t a place to make this food accessible to the average New Yorker. Hot Bread Kitchen seemed to be the right place for me to do that.”

Pierre was one of the first entrepreneurs to join the Hot Bread Kitchen Incubator in 2011. Looking for ways to expand his catering business and launch an African imports product line, Pierre says he stumbled upon the Incubator program and found that Hot Bread Kitchen “checked all the right boxes.” He appreciated the focus on empowering immigrants, women, and minority entrepreneurs. Today, he operates his full-service catering company Pierre Thiam Catering, and preps all the dishes for his new restaurant, Teranga, out of HBK Incubates.

It is fortuitous that in this next phase of Pierre’s culinary career, East Harlem is the home base. Teranga, the restaurant in Harlem’s new Africa Center is located minutes from the Incubator, on the corner of 110th Street and 5th Avenue. The restaurant marks the spot for the border of East Harlem and it’s proximity the West Side’s Little Senegal. “We couldn’t ask for a better location,” Pierre said.

Being in the Africa Center, a hub for African art and culture, is an extraordinary partnership for Pierre. “East Harlem is my community. The message I am trying to bring is another way of presenting West African cuisine to East Harlem.”

The fast-casual restaurant is open all day, serving up seasonal bowls that pay homage to African heritage like fermented cassava couscous and plantain fufu. Of the offerings Pierre is most excited about are the dishes that feature fonio, the center of what has become Pierre’s import business. The ancient grain is prized for its culinary versatility and historical importance to African agriculture. His favorite dish right now is a fonio salad with roasted beets and pickled carrots.

“We’re embracing the community,” Pierre says of Teranga’s presence in East Harlem. Walking into the restaurant, it’s palpable that the Africa Center and Teranga are designed in a way that embraces and welcomes all kinds of African heritage. In fact, in Senegal, the word “teranga” roughly translates to “good hospitality.” There’s art everywhere, including a large scale wall drawing called “Harlem Sunrise” by Nigerian born Victor Ekpuk. A lending library with children’s’ books and cookbooks all from African and African-American writers allow for neighbors to relax, read, and learn. Pierre’s cookbooks are of course included in this collection. There’s always African music playing. “It’s all here for us,” Pierre states proudly. It’s teranga.

credit: itsteranga.com

At HBK Incubates, Pierre has helped shaped the entrepreneurial community from co-hosting events with former incubator member, Taste of Ethiopia or getting to know fellow West African producer, EgunsiFoods. Pierre reflects, “This all wouldn’t be possible without Hot Bread Kitchen, what I’ve achieved. I’m grateful to have had Hot Bread Kitchen as a starting point.”

For Teranga’s menu and hours visit their website itsteranga.com.

HBK Incubates is a shared commercial kitchen space and business support program for high-growth food enterprises, run by Hot Bread Kitchen. #IncubatedbyHBK