Cooking up African influences

(Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Glenn Yoder
Globe Staff / July 20, 2011

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Q. Your publicist says you needed some coaxing to go on “Chopped.’’ Why were you resistant?

A. I was resistant because I lived in Western culture for almost all my life, but the African culture is still in me. I never doubted my cooking skills, not at all, but the competition is different and it’s on national TV. I was just afraid with TV, whatever they say, they always go for ratings. So I was afraid I may be portrayed in a way that’s not very me. It’s just the fear of not being in control of what you are going to be perceived as.

Q. You were given particular everyday ingredients and created dishes with foreign flair. How did that translate?

A. When I opened the basket and saw the ingredients, I said to myself, “Two of your competitors are of Asian background, so why should you go and do Asian?’’ I’m not uncomfortable cooking Asian cuisine but I said, “I’m not going to do that. I know my cuisine and I know my background, so I’m going to go back to my background.’’ That’s why I drew into my Senegalese background and I made the appetizers [marinated ribs] that I made in round one that the [judges] ended up loving.

Q. So were you comfortable adapting the various ingredients you were given?

A. Yeah, because in Senegal, we are very creative. We make jokes and say, “We create stuff but we are best known for taking other people’s dishes and making it our own.’’ We have many influences from Europe, from the Arabic world, from Asian culture. So we have Italian in our cuisine, we have Portuguese, we have French influence. So all that mixed together makes it like one nice worldly cuisine. My competitors were saying, “I’ve never worked with this,’’ and I’d smile and laugh and say, “This isn’t new to me.’’

Q. When you were 5, you began baking with your father, whom you dedicated your “Chopped’’ performance to. How did those skills come in handy?

A. It’s funny because my family and friends told me that once they knew that I was going to the dessert round and knew what I was making [gingerbread crepes], they said, “Oh, she’s going to win because she makes excellent crepes.’’ I’ve been doing it every Sunday at home, and when my father was alive, we were having crepes for breakfast every Sunday morning.

Q. Along with your father’s baking background, your mother is a catering chef whom you have credited with inspiring your cooking.

A. Both my parents showed me that cooking is actually an art. It’s not putting something on the stove and putting it on the plate. There’s much more to the event of eating and cooking.

Q. After winning “Chopped,’’ where do you go from here?

A. My goal is to put African food on the map. [With Teranga,] I just gave one version and [Senegalese] is the one version that I gave. And it’s not, like, everything, because I wanted to give a slow introduction to the American audience. But I intend to hopefully open a few more units with different concepts - still African food, but different regions of Africa or the Caribbean.

Q. How would you convince those who haven’t tried African food?

A. I would say they are missing out. I have yet to have someone who has tried the food and who did not like it. So I would tell the less curious-minded to be more adventurous and to go out and try it. There’s nothing in there that they don’t know. There’s no new ingredients, just different combinations.

Q. Have you noticed more interest in Teranga since the show aired?

A. Definitely, yeah. We’ve seen a great flood, and just for that, I’m glad I went to the show. Because people now want to come and give it a try and they say, “Oh my goodness, this is great.’’ So I’ve seen nothing but a positive impact from my appearance.

Interview was edited and condensed. Glenn Yoder can be reached at

Marie-Claude Mendy
Last month, the Senegal native, owner of Teranga restaurant, won Food Network’s “Chopped,’’ knocking off three other chefs for the $10,000 prize. While competing on the show, she hit only one snag, when she ran out of time preparing a lamb stew. The mistake prevented her from presenting a complete entree. “I knew time would be my worst nightmare,’’ she says. “I thought, ‘If I can manage my time, I will be unbeatable.’ ’’ Turns out, even with an error in time management, she still couldn’t be beat.