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Senegalese cuisine featured in Museum of Fine Arts demonstration, book-signing

Yolele is a word used in Senegal to express joy and delight. So it's a good title for chef Pierre Thiam's cookbook that bears the subtitle, Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, which celebrates the cuisine of his homeland.

Thiam will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg on Oct. 24 to cook dishes from the book, food that won acclaim from diners at two restaurants he owned in New York. He's now a consultant and caterer as well as an award-winner cookbook writer.

Though Yolele! has an abundance of recipes, it's also an engaging memoir and introduction to Senegalese culture. In a recent telephone interview from his home in New York, Thiam, 47, called it "a tribute to my family."

It is a large, extended family, and photographs of his relatives, friends and Senegalese neighborhoods are interspersed with those of food.

Senegal, located on Africa's west coast, has been for centuries a melting pot, originally of ethnic tribes. Beginning in the 15th century, Europeans began arriving because of its strategic location on the Atlantic Ocean and the opportunity as a trade center (including slaves). The Portuguese, Dutch, British and French came and went but left behind many cultural influences. France was the last foreign nation to govern Senegal, which became independent in 1960. Because Senegalese soldiers also participated in France's colonial governance of what is now Vietnam, many Vietnamese refugees came to Senegal after the French left southeast Asia, so it, too, has a cultural imprint.

Thiam (pronounced "chahm") grew up in Dakar, the sophisticated, multicultural capital, and spent summers at the family home in the country. He was headed to college in Ohio to study chemistry and physics when he was robbed during a stopover in New York and had to find a temporary job. A friend steered him to a busboy opening at a restaurant.

He had always been fascinated by food and cooking and loved watching his mother in the kitchen and reading her cookbooks. But in Senegal, tradition dictates that participation is denied to males; only women are allowed near the pots and pans. In the New York restaurant, he saw the opposite, as he writes in Yolele!

"I was intrigued by the men in white moving in harmony around the flames and knives. It was theatrical, almost magical. … Men cooking! The kitchen felt like a world apart."

Thiam never made it to Cleveland. He read cookbooks at the public library, experimented, and finessed his way into a job at another restaurant in garde manger, or the salad station. He rose through the ranks at various restaurants but didn't explore the cuisine of his homeland until he opened his own place, Yolele, then another, Le Grand Dakar, both in Brooklyn. He published Yolele! in 2008. His reputation got him a turn on Iron Chef in 2010, in which he narrowly lost to Bobby Flay in Battle Papaya.

The book illustrates Senegal's rich and varied layers of its fusion cuisine and features a chapter, "The Middle Passage," that discusses Senegal and other East African countries' contributions to food of the American South, the Caribbean and the Central and South Americas that arrived on the slave ships. Some Yolele! recipes call for a few ingredients that aren't found in most Tampa Bay area supermarkets such as fonio, a small grain, but others are quite accessible and especially relevant to Gulf Coast cooks since fresh seafood is front and center in many dishes. The women, dressed in colorful textiles, are photographed cooking the dishes in large pots over outdoor fires rather than in kitchens.

"They have kitchens," Thiam says, "but they are purists. It has to be done in the traditional way. It is also a communal activity."

He, too, will be cooking outside the kitchen for his demonstration and the dishes he'll serve (still not totally positive on) will reflect, as does his cookbook, the foods of his home. Perhaps the Senegalese version of Spanish paella?

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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