PAPA ASSANE MBENGUE

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When I remember my childhood in Senegal, food was never far away. My father owned a bakery and restaurant, and I spent many of my after-school hours in the dining area doing homework under his watchful eye. Although it was considered taboo for Senegalese men to cook, I often passed my days in my mother's kitchen observing her skillful hand as she and my sisters spent hours cooking elaborate meals from scratch twice a day with meat, fish, and produce they hand-selected from the market each morning.

Hospitality is one of Senegal's most closely-held values, and whether you're family or a stranger, it's common to be invited to join a meal around a large shared platter. My mother's cooking was famous in the neighborhood, and there was always a large crowd of people who managed to find themselves in her courtyard when lunchtime came around. Her expert preparations of Senegal's classic dishes became the flavors I associated with home – though I was later interested to learn that our cuisine incorporates influences from as far away as the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and even Southeast Asia. 

As a teenager, I began to lose interest in school and found myself curious about the world beyond my country. At this time, Senegal was an important launching point on the illegal smuggling route of pirogues (wooden fishing boats) that shuttled people – fleeing violence, poverty, or simply the hopeless feeling of being stuck – from all over the continent to Europe. I knew of many people who had left for Europe, and I became determined to follow them. After waiting years for a visa that never arrived, I stepped onto an overloaded pirogue headed for Spain and prayed for the best. I had heard the journey was very dangerous, and it was. After our boat’s two motors and GPS failed, the more than 100 other passengers and I spent 8 days adrift in the open Atlantic, rocked by enormous waves that threatened to capsize our ship, until a Red Cross ship patrolling off the Coast of the Spanish island of Tenerife rescued us. My first step on international soil was not promising – I was so weakened by hunger, dehydration, fear, and seasickness that I collapsed. 

I found my way to Barcelona and started to build a life for myself. Separated from my family members in Senegal, and unable to visit them without legal papers, I began to cook Senegalese dishes to feel closer to home. Over long-distance phone calls, my mother patiently shared the secrets of her delicious meals. At the same time, I was absorbing the local culture – learning Spanish and Catalan and navigating Barcelona's many ramblas with ease. As I became more confident in the kitchen, I began to experiment with more and more global influences in my cooking. 

After nearly four years in Barcelona, my life took an unexpected turn – I fell in love with an American woman, married, and eventually moved to the United States to live with her. The first city we lived in in the United States was New Orleans, where I was excited to learn about how many cultures, over time, had borrowed from each other and combined together to create amazing music and food. 

As I launched my professional career as a chef and caterer in the United States, I expanded on this interest in bringing together a range of flavors and culinary cultures. At restaurants in San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., I prepared dishes from all over the world, from France to Eritrea, India to Ireland, and everywhere in between. Over the years, I was also lucky enough to travel to a number of other countries – including France, Portugal, Iceland, South Africa, Panama, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico – where I learned about new cuisines through shared meals and conversations. 

It made me really happy to share these stories and flavors with people back in the U.S., whether it was preparing meals from scratch for 1,200 teachers and schoolchildren daily (including President Obama’s daughters and Vice President Biden’s grandchildren) at Sidwell Friends School; cooking for intimate dinner parties in the private homes of leading business people; or, with Washington’s leading catering company, making multi-course meals for world-class athletes, foreign monarchs, visiting heads of state, and three U.S. presidents.

Throughout this long experimentation with global cuisines, I have remained passionate about introducing people to the complex flavors and welcoming culture of the West African food that my mother still prepares every day in her courtyard. I am a frequent collaborator of Chef Pierre Thiam's, an award-winning chef and ambassador for African cuisine featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. In the summer of 2019, I traveled back to Barcelona – this time on an airplane, thankfully! – to serve as Chef de Cuisine for Chef Thiam's pop-up Senegalese restaurant located inside the luxury hotel The Cotton House. Alongside Chef Thiam, I have also been honored to share kitchens with legendary chefs including Thomas Keller, Jérome Bocuse, Curtis Stone, and Paul Bartolotta. 

My family and I recently moved back to the Bay Area, where I am currently the Executive Chef at Bissap Baobab in Oakland and San Francisco and available to cater events of any size. For more information, please feel free to reach out to me directly at pa.assane.mbengue@gmail.com