Pierre Thiam used to have to smuggle fonio from West Africa into the U.S. Now he’s getting it into as many of the country’s restaurants and grocery stores as he can.
Pierre Thiam stood completely still in Dakar’s international airport. Arms wrapped tightly around his suitcase, he prayed guard dogs wouldn’t pick up the pungent smell of the fermented locust bean cakes stuffed between toiletries and bundled shirts in his luggage.
If Thiam had wrapped the beans in enough aluminum foil, the dogs would keep moving. But if they stopped to sniff for a moment too long, he knew security would empty his bag and send him back to New York empty-handed as they had many times before.
“There was no other choice,” the chef says. Without locust beans, bitter eggplant, tiny blond fonio grains, and the other Senegalese ingredients he hid in his carry-on, he couldn’t make any of the dishes on his menu.
The memory, now two decades old, stands in stark contrast to where he sits now, one long skinny leg crossed over the other at his eight-month-old Harlem restaurant, Teranga, and at the head of his own food-importing operation, Yolélé. But he likely wouldn’t be where he is had the obstacles been different.
If getting his ingredients from West Africa to Brooklyn were easier. If rising rents hadn’t forced the closing his restaurant, Le Grand Dakar, in Clinton Hill in 2011. If he hadn’t already been so exhausted from years cooking fine-dining cuisine.
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