NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Serigne Mbaye sees links to the food of his ancestral home of Senegal all around his adopted home of New Orleans, in the gumbo, the rice dishes, even the beignets.
The young chef wants to build new connections through modern New Orleans cooking, and one avenue is a series of collaborations with local restaurants.
That series begins next week (Sept. 22) in conjunction with chef Marcus Jacobs, of Marjie’s Grill, the Mid-City restaurant known for its own exploratory approach of different cooking cultures. Kin, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, MoPho, Bywater American Bistro, Turkey & the Wolf and Mosquito Supper Club are all on deck for the weeks ahead.
“African cuisine doesn’t get as much credit as it should, so how can I show people how it connects to other cuisines?” said Mbaye. “Making dishes with these different chefs, I think it shows how Senegalese cuisine is part of so many cuisines and can be related to them.”
At 27, Mbaye had already racked up a remarkable résumé in the highest levels of American cuisine, cooking at Commander’s Palace and the Michelin-starred restaurants L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York and Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
Today, he runs a recurring pop-up called Dakar NOLA at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Mbaye is working to eventually turn Dakar NOLA into a full-service New Orleans restaurant.
He’s driven by a mission to see the flavors of Senegal recognized and celebrated in the same way as French or Italian cuisine, both through traditional preparations and the kind of creative energy chefs bring with their own interpretations.
“My idea is to bring classic and modern together in a way that makes sense for people of different generations,” said Mbaye. “The dishes I cook are traditional to Senegal but based on my technique and style and what I’ve learned.”
His changing pop-up menus for Dakar NOLA show the cornerstones of Senegalese cooking — with its prevalent French, Portuguese and regional African elements — with nods to the local Creole style, itself a tapestry of influences. At a recent pop-up, redfish yassa paired a deftly cooked local catch with aromatic caramelized onion and roasted sweet potato; fonio, an ancient millet grain of Africa, soft and earthy, became a salad with tomatoes and cucumber and lemon vinaigrette; akara, the black-eyed pea fritters, filled a sandwich heaped with more melting, caramelized onions on crusty ciabatta from Gracious Bakery.
By showcasing traditional food in new ways, Mbaye hopes he can keep the story of its roots and global reach alive.
“If that doesn’t happen, I’m worried the culture will die,” he said.
A journey, with familiar flavors
Collaborations such as the ones Mbaye is charting now have been cropping up in recent months. Addis NOLA, for instance, has been pairing with other restaurants to bring its Ethiopian flavors to more people.
Jacobs, at Marjie’s Grill, said the idea resonated with him as restaurant people seek ways to move forward and build new bridges through a vexing point of history.
“I think solidarity is always important, and right now, we really need each other, from a business standpoint and from a personal standpoint,” he said. “There’s COVID, there’s increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s the politics right now. Restaurants and food are a way can we can come together.”
At Marjie’s Grill, Jacobs combines elements of the American South and southeast Asia, with slow-cooked meats, chile-splashed seafood, lots of herbs and abundant vegetables. To plan their collaboration, he and Mbaye started where their styles intersect and built from there.
“We found a lot of common ground in our cooking and our ideologies, and when we sat down to talk food, I was really blown away by the knowledge he was laying down,” Jacobs said.
Mbaye was born in New York and spent much of his youth in Senegal, where his parents were born and where he developed his love of cooking. Back in the United States, he graduated culinary school and embarked on a restaurant career.
That journey led him to New Orleans, where he found a culinary landscape with many touch points to the one he knew back home. There’s pride in local ingredients, especially seafood, one-dish rice dishes for communal eating (like jollof, a dish akin to jambalaya), and the influences and even shared food language from a French colonial past.
For instance, the main difference between the beignets he tried at Cafe du Monde and the beignets he ate as street food snacks in Dakar is the pronunciation of the name (something like “bin-yet” for him, as opposed to the local “ben-yay”).
“I couldn’t believe I was all the way here in New Orleans, and I was eating beignets,” Mbaye said.
The first in the collaboration series is scheduled for Sept. 22, when Mbaye will be guest chef at Marjie’s Grill, for a dine-in meal (the restaurant is serving on its open-air and tented outdoor areas).
Future editions include cooking with Hieu Than, of the ramen restaurant Kin on Sept. 29 (Mbaye will make a Senegalese-inspired broth, Than will make the noodles); then Michael Gulotta, of the Asian fusion restaurant MoPho; Kerry Seaton-Stewart, of the Treme classic Willie Mae’s Scotch House; Mason Hereford, of the sandwich shop Turkey & the Wolf; Nina Compton, of Bywater American Bistro; and Melissa Martin, of Mosquito Supper Club.