I first met Chef Serigne “Love” Mbaye in 2017 when we were both peeling carrots for a pop-up dinner Chef Pierre Thiam was hosting at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. He was only 24 at the time but with his extraordinary culinary skills, fierce intelligence, fearlessness, and unrivaled work ethic it was obvious he was destined for greatness. Everyone who meets Serigne feels this way about him. We went on to become good friends and I had the great pleasure of introducing him to the late, legendary Chef Leah Chase over lunch. It was just the three of us in a private dining room at Dooky Chase and Serigne charmed her with gifts of a jar of fonio, a grain commonly used in West African cooking, and a dashiki. She saw his magic and quickly joined me in the ranks of Serigne’s rapidly expanding body of cheerleaders.
Next week Serigne’s dream comes true with the opening of Dakar NOLA, the restaurant he is opening with business partner Effie Richardson. After years of pop-ups this full-fledged restaurant will explore the foods of Senegal and their foundational relationship to those of the American South. Over the years Serigne and I have shared many conversations about his mission to draw attention to the unacknowledged culinary contributions the enslaved West African people made to our culinary traditions. Put a bowl of Serigne’s mother’s West African Soupou Kandia next to a bowl of New Orleans' seafood gumbo and there will be no doubt as to the root of New Orleans’ most iconic dish.
Born in New York and raised in his family's native Senegal, he spent much of his childhood in a religious boarding school in West Africa, separated from his family. He returned to the United States at age 14. Following his studies at the New England Culinary Institute he was inspired to reconnect with his West African background by Thiam, an internationally celebrated chef who was the first to write a Senegalese cookbook in English. While on a return visit to Senegal during an airport layover Serigne made a chance connection with Cliff Hall, co-owner of New Orleans Fish House, who became a mentor and brought the young chef to New Orleans. He was soon employed by Commander's Palace, where he rose to the position of senior line cook in six months. He then served as sous chef at the erstwhile Cafe Adelaide before moving on to the Michelin-starred restaurants Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. He later cooked with Chef Melissa Martin at Mosquito Supper Club.
Beginning next Wednesday, Dakar will offer one seating per evening, Wednesday through Saturday, at 7 p.m. with a series of dishes, some served family style, to groups of no more than 30. Seven or more courses will be served over two hours. During that time diners will learn about the traditions and the history behind the foods they will share.
The opening menu starts with Ataya, a welcome course of Senegalese tea made with gunpowder tea leaves and palm oil bread also called “Mburu” in the Wololf language. The first appetizer course, Crevette, features Gulf shrimp and tamarind. The second appetizer course, Last Meal, comes with a harrowing story, and is Serigne's take on a traditional Senegalese dish consisting of black-eyed peas, crab meat, and palm oil. The next course is a salad made with fonio, citrus, finger limes, tomatoes, and a satsuma vinaigrette. The next course is Jollof, West Africa’s iconic rice dish. Next up is Yassa, a spicy Senegalese dish Serigne makes with caramelized onions, mustard greens, butternut squash, and redfish. For dessert Jerejef (“thank you” in Wolof) is Thiakry pie made of sweetened millet couscous and served with Ataya ice cream and mint.
Serigne once said to me “I am moved by the reality that, as a chef, I have the luxury to choose what people eat. To me that’s very powerful, an awesome responsibility."
Here’s to you, my brother. So happy for you, so proud.
In other culinary news on Saturday Bacchanal is hosting a Beaujolais Fest 3- 5 p.m. Tickets go on sale day-of at the door at 2 p.m. for $15 and are first come first serve. Guests can expect to sample 28 different bottles of light and fruity Beaujolais and will get $5 off for any in-store purchases made.