French Gastronomy Embraces Modern Interpretations of African Cuisine – Robb Report

When former French president François Hollande strode through the doors of red-hot Parisian restaurant Mosuke last fall and greeted chef Mory Sacko as though they were old friends, Sacko was… stunned.

Sure, the dining room had been packed every night since Sacko had become the first Black chef in Paris to earn a Michelin star—just four months after Mosuke’s September 2020 debut. Even so, when the restaurant had received a call requesting a table for two under Hollande’s name only an hour earlier, he waved it off as a prank as his team hustled to make room just in case.

“The fact that he came in and called me by my first name was crazy,”Sacko said. “He was very curious about the culture of African gastronomy and asked me a lot of questions about the dishes and where I got my inspiration. I found that really beautiful.”

Allaying any suggestion that Hollande’s visit was a fluke, an invitation to cook for President Emmanuel Macron as part of a France-Africa summit arrived soon after. Franco-Malian chef was not only a celebrity ambassador for haute African cooking, but he also received two presidential gestures. They were also irrefutable proof that the continent’s culinary heritage is finally claiming its rightful seat at the notoriously persnickety French table.

Sacko, at 29 years old, is undoubtedly the most well-known and well-known Black chef in France today. This is due in part to his participation in the 2020 season Top Chef in France where the TV series is very serious, and his current stint hosting the traveling cooking show Cuisine Ouverte. Along with serving up a complex Afro-French and Japanese-inspired cuisine, Mosuke challenges French palates—and perhaps a few prejudices—into accepting the foods and flavors of Mali, Senegal and Cameroon, among other countries, as significant and legitimate gastronomic experiences.

Mosuke: Lobster with sesame miso and nori at Mosuke 

Laura Stevens

But Sacko’s accomplishments are not an isolated success story. They’re the product of a growing momentum fueled by second-generation Afro-French defying a longstanding notion held by their immigrant parents that traditional Senegalese and Malian cuisines belong in the home and have no place among the French gastronomic elite. Restaurants such as BMK Paris – BamakoAnd Le Maquis de New Soul FoodElis Bond, Georgiana Viou and other chefs have drawn serious gourmets to both the richness and diversity of the French West Indies. And while it’s generally agreed that the trend is in its infancy, the new cohort of chefs and entrepreneurs are determined to make the foods and flavors of their motherlands as ubiquitous in France as sushi and ceviche are today.

Appreciating the significance of Sacko’s success in France requires a recent-history lesson about some of his predecessors. Olivier Thimothée was a pioneer when he opened Waly-FayIn Paris’ Bastille neighborhood in 1997, he was in his 20s with two friends. One of them was of Ivorian heritage and the other was French. Today, Waly-Fay is one of the longest-running African establishments in the capital and in 2019 was named one of Time Out’s 50 best restaurants in the city.

Chef Olivier Thimothée of Waly Fay

Waly-Fay chef Olivier Thimothée. 

Laura Stevens

While there were plenty of mom-and-pop spots serving traditional foods for Afro-French customers, Thimothée, now 50, envisioned a space for the second generation of the African diaspora like himself (his father is from Martinique, his mother Algerian), along with local French diners. “It was our fantasy to return to our roots,”He said. “We wanted to create a place that looked like us, young people in their 20s, of various origins. Our goal was to open a good African restaurant that also had the codes of Western dining.”

This meant that French wines were offered alongside traditional Senegalese dishes like thie-boudienne, a Senegalese dish of fish-and-rice. UNESCO cultural heritage list, and ndolé, a Cameroonian dish made with bitter leaves, peanuts, onions and spices.

Waly-Fay’s Miondo

Waly-Fay’s miondo (fermented cassava sticks) gombos (okra) and ndolé (shrimp with peanuts). 

Laura Stevens

Thimothée attributes the rise of African chefs and restaurants in Paris to an influx of up-and-comers who share the same desire he had 25 years ago. “It’s a story of generations,”He says that the sub-Saharan African immigrants who have immigrated to France are relatively recent. Indeed, the first wave from former French colonies such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal started in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Our parents had a hard time fitting in and struggled with their identity,” Thimothée says. “But us, we started to find our place. We were born here, went to school here, and we reinvented ourselves in France.”

Fousseyni Dajikine, coowner of BMK Paris -BamakoAnd BMK Folie – Bamako, which are popular among the local millennial and Gen Z crowds, echoes Thimothée’s sentiments. “The immigrant thinking after arriving in France was to not make any noise. To just do their work quietly in the corner,”Djikine, 35 years old, adds that immigrants internalized the colonization trauma and saw their own culture as less valuable than their adopted country’s. “Our parents believed that in order to be accepted, they had to make themselves small and adapt to French culture.”

BMK chef Fousseyni Djikine

BMK chef Fousseyni Djikine. 

Laura Stevens

He and his brother were both taught the same thing as young children. This code of conduct was also applied to their meals. “We loved our Malian cuisine, but in the mind of our mother, and others like her, it was a food to be eaten at home, in private,” Djikine explains. “We never tried to highlight our cuisine because, even though it was excellent, we were taught that to integrate, it’s better to highlight French cuisine.”

And when it comes to food, there’s the undeniable fact that they live in one of the most influential gastronomic epicenters in the world. Djikine wasn’t impervious to the belief that the foods of his childhood would fail to attract Parisian diners of European descent. He was not averse to African cuisine when he started seriously considering opening a restaurant together with his younger brother, Abdoulaye. But little by little, as Djikine, a former business consultant, began researching restaurant concepts, he realized that despite Paris boasting a sizable and dynamic diasporic community, that group’s culinary heritage was sorely underrepresented. (French law forbids the collection of race-based information in the census. However, an influx of immigrants from African countries and the Caribbean has resulted in a substantial Black population.

His first address, BMK in Paris-Bamako, was opened in 2017 and quickly became a local favourite, attracting the attention Le FigaroThe small, casual spot was included in the list of top restaurants for that year by. Its success led the establishment of BMK Folie-Bamako in the 11th arrondissement. At both, the emphasis is on quality French ingredients—Limousin beef, free-range chicken from Normandy—and imported artisan chocolate, coffee, honey and hibiscus juice from small-scale suppliers in Africa. BMK’s signature dish, mafé, is a generous portion of smoked chicken under a blanket of creamy, unctuous peanut sauce, made from a base of homemade peanut paste.

Bamako Fried Chicken at BMK

Bamako fried chicken with plantains at BMK 

Laura Stevens

Every table at BMK Folie-Bamako’s Saturday-afternoon lunch is taken. The banquettes are occupied along the terra-cotta-painted walls by young couples and friends. There are also cushions in cheerful batik prints that serve as informal dividers.

“What’s changed is, at the beginning we had people who were trying African cuisine for the first time,”Djikine said. “Now, there are fewer and fewer guests who’ve never tasted African foods, and it’s becoming more and more known.”

Chef Rudy Lainé He had worked in the high-end kitchens of Le Grand VéfourAnd Plaza AthénéeWhen he started his humble food truck New Soul FoodIn 2015. His strategy was to introduce Parisians to West Africa and West Indies flavors with hints of the familiar. The truck’s popularity led to the 2020 opening of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Le Maquis, along the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement, where yassa, a West African chicken dish traditionally made with onions and lemons, is served with attiéké (fermented cassava couscous) studded with marinated tomato confits, and the barbecued chicken aromatized with herbes de Provence, a dish he calls Afropéenne.

The interior is relaxed and casual with woven barstools surrounding large tables and wall art of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging heavy in it. The restaurant is well-known among Paris’ Black diaspora, as they come to the restaurant for the familiar comfort foods from sub-Saharan Africa or the French West Indies.

Chef Joël Lainé of the New Soul Food truck and his brother Rudy Lainé

Joël Lainé (left), chef of the New Soul Food truck, and his brother Rudy Lainé, chef of the restaurant Le Maquis de New Soul Food, in Paris. 

Laura Stevens

Despite his experience in some of Paris’s most elite establishments, Lainé says he never entertained the idea of opening a fancier restaurant because he doesn’t think people would slap down a lot of money for a cuisine they don’t know. Compared to diners in London, where he worked at Michel Roux’s Le GavrocheHe believes that Parisians, like Americans, are more wary of unfamiliar tastes than Americans. “I will never do fine African dining,”He said. “It’s important to have a Mory Sacko, but it’s also important to have a bridge to that world through approachable street food.”

New Soul Food Afro-Creole platter

New Soul Food’s Afro-Creole platter, with braised fish in creole sauce, attiéké, basmati rice, corn on the cob and plantains, served on banana leaves. 

Laura Stevens

Lainé’s skepticism about customers’ attitudes is a common one. Waly-Fay’s Thimothée says the historical view of African culture as less important, less valuable, has seeped into financial considerations, with some diners—many of them African—complaining that his prices (mains are around €20, or $22) are too high. “Customers don’t mind paying €28 for a risotto or €18 for pasta,”He notes. “But an African dish, even if it’s made with fish that takes hours and hours of preparation and quality ingredients imported from Cameroon, they think it should still be cheap.”

Elis Bond (30) knows a lot about devaluation. He was named by influential French restaurant guide as a young talent to watch in 2019. Gault & Millau His work as a private chef in Paris and as a caterer. Despite the validation, Bond couldn’t persuade a single French bank to invest in his dream of opening a restaurant.

Chef Elis Bond of Mi Kwabo

Chef Elis Bond, Mi Kwabo. 

Laura Stevens

Bond and Vanessa opened a tiny 14-seat restaurant in January 2020. Mi KwaboIn the Pigalle neighborhood. The self-taught chef was known for elevating okra and cassava, plantains, and other humble ingredients, as well as traditional dishes like fufu or mitoumba, and giving them fine-dining treatment.

Le Figaro hailed Bond’s “creativity, finesse and sensitivity” and welcomed his departure from the repetitive rotation of yassa and mafés seen at most African restaurants in Paris. Libération also heaped praise on his refined cuisine, lauding it as a “rare offering”In the French capital.

Mi Kwabo served mitoumba (a savory fermented-cassava cake and palm-oil cake) that was lightly smoked in banana leaves before being fried. Bond says the result was reminiscent a Parmigiano Reggiano or smoked charcuterie cuts. The mitoumba was served with chanterelle and cèpe mushrooms, and an mbongo sauce was made from a dark spice blend from Cameroon that is charred before being ground and turns everything it touches black. Both dishes are described in the past tense because Mi Kwabo’s small size and the fallout from Covid-19 forced it to close less than two years after opening. But plans are in the works to launch a bigger, more ambitious version by September, with an expanded menu that will reflect Bond’s heritage (he was born to Haitian parents in French Guiana) and his wife’s Beninese origins, as well as their life together in France.

Gault & Millau’s favorite chef Georgiana Viou is akin to Bond. She moved to France from Benin at the age 22 and has been a Gault & Millau fan ever since. She was named one of the 2022 guides. “greats of tomorrow”In recognition of her culinary skills, Rouge, in Nîmes in the South of France, after she made a name for herself with a restaurant in Marseille and as a competitor on the French version of MasterChef in 2010.

Chef Georgiana Viou of Rouge in Nîmes

Georgiana Viou, chef of Rouge in Nîmes. 

Laura Stevens

At Rouge, the 44-year-old draws inspiration from her heritage and France’s Provençale bounty to create inventive dishes such as red mullet stuffed with boudin (French blood sausage) and seasoned with mint, ginger and afitin, a traditional African mustard made from fermented néré seeds. The fish is coated with bright orange palm oil from Benin’s small-batch producers (one of her personal campaigns was to educate the public about the difference between the industrial and artisanal versions), baked, and then charred with blowtorch to recall the flavor of the barbecued fish in her homeland. “This dish reminds me of the flavors of home, and of my childhood,”Viou said, “and also surprises guests who’ve never known this taste before.”

The menu is local when possible and seasonal—and nothing goes to waste. To aromatize a dish, carrot fronds can be dehydrated and pulverized to a powder. Fish bones can be fried, smoked and made into bouillons. Or reduced to powder and used to make fish salt. And there are days when fish, despite the restaurant’s being close to the Mediterranean coast, will not be on the menu—no apologies. “It’s up to us to educate our customers,”She says. “The sea is not a supermarket. It also has its seasons.”

Mullet stuffed with blood sausage at Rouge in Nîmes

Viou making red mullet with blood sausage, afitin, iodized mysclun, and celery mousse 

Laura Stevens

It is a common theme to educate the public. Bond presented diners with a platter that included the raw forms of the ingredients after they had eaten at Mi Kwabo. The BMK Paris–Bamako website offers lessons about African food. “A lot of people know very little about the African continent,”Viou. “First, we have to explain that our continent is made up of different regions and that, like Italy, Spain and France in Europe, things may appear to be similar but that cultures are all different.”

There are 54 African countries, each with its own traditions. It’s also worth noting that African American soul foods have established their own separate category in Paris. Restaurants like Gumbo YayaAnd Mama JacksonTheir American-style comfort foods such as chicken and waffles, fried poultry, corn bread, and mac & cheese have gained a loyal following.

Return to Mosuke, Sacko’s experimental menu is already a few steps ahead and challenges diners to take a leap of faith into a culinary universe where French, African and Japanese flavors can co-exist harmoniously on a single plate. Sacko discovers the surprising combination after spending an afternoon in the minimalist, empty dining room.

“I can see how people might have a hard time imagining a menu that’s simultaneously French, Japanese and African,”He said he was enjoying his long legs stretching out in front of his six foot five-inch frame. “But it’s a really personal cuisine.”

It may come off as contrived on paper, but the menu’s tri-continental influences reflect Sacko’s Franco-Malian heritage and his passion for Japanese flavors that stems from a boyhood obsession with manga. Under the guidance of Michelin-star chef Thierry Mar Marx at Mandarin Oriental, Paris, he continued to pursue this interest. (Mosuke is a mash-up of the chef’s first name and Yasuke, the first African samurai in Japan.)

When devising the menu, Sacko began with childhood memories of sitting around a dinner table laden with his mother’s hearty Malian and Senegalese comfort foods in the Paris suburb of Seine-et-Marne with his eight siblings. While tinkering with the recipe for her rich, creamy peanut-and-tomato-based beef mafé, he couldn’t quite put a finger on what was missing. “It wasn’t bad, but I wanted to give it something extra,”He says. His “aha”Moment came when he added a few spoonfuls umami-rich miso. The Japanese also used other inflections such as yuzu and yassa in a yassa dish.

Though such innovations are what define the great chefs of any culture, Sacko and his peers are confident that today’s novelty of African cuisine will be tomorrow’s normal. “I think it’s just a matter of time,”He said. “In 20, 40 years, there won’t be anything exceptional about going to an African restaurant in Paris or elsewhere. It will happen little by little.”


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