I remember being in second year at the University of British Columbia, in Canada, and hearing “djolof rice”. There I was, the only Senegalese girl on campus, finally hearing a familiar word from my native language, djolof. Through my encounters with fellow African students, I came to realise that there was Ghanaian, Nigerian, Senegalese or Thiebou Dieune, Sierra Leonean djolof rice and probably many others I have yet to discover. It became apparent that djolof rice, was more than just rice. It represented the cultural heritage our continent gained from its diverse colonial presence while celebrating the richness and particularity of each ethnic group.
Upon completing my anthropology degree, I worked in harm reduction with individuals from marginalised groups. It did not take long for me to introduce my passion for food into my work. I started hosting community kitchens, the goal of which was to provide nourishment and to create a feeling of belonging and community. I chose to prepare dishes people associated with positive memories, and that reminded them of the happy times in their life. After seeing how my meals put smiles on their faces, I decided to go to culinary school.
Going to culinary school was a thought I had cultivated for many years, but I had been too embarrassed to make the move. I felt I had a duty to become an academic or work for the United Nations and fight for social justice. I guess I was still embedded in the colonial mentality that viewed studying in North America as a privilege for a West African girl. Despite my initial reservations, culinary school was probably one of the best experiences of my life. I can never forget entering class for the first time and how the conversations around the room gave me an instant sense of belonging. I remember thinking, “My people, where have you been?”.
Culinary school taught me a few techniques, however, to my surprise, professional kitchens in North America were a man’s world; a place to display machismo. Very early on in my cooking career, I was directly told by chefs that I had to work twice as hard because I was a woman. As time passed, I realized that just entering a kitchen as a woman meant other cooks would see me as hormonal, lacking self control, and unable to follow the chef’s instructions. As a result, I made sure to ask for help only when imperative. I did the physical work they thought I could not do, and I made sure to do the hard jobs with a big smile on my face. There were days in the kitchen I would get screamed at by the chef for hours and he would keep repeating: “are you going to cry, you are so emotional, girls are always crying”. This is commonplace in traditional French kitchens; as they say, “they need to break you to rebuild you again”. In other words, only their way is the right way.
Traditional fine dining kitchens are structured in a hierarchical manner that follows a militaristic framework where emotions are left at the door: uniform, white, crisp, yes chef, never no chef, repeat. I also felt uncomfortable coming into kitchens where aside from being the only female, I was also the only black person. I constantly felt the need to compensate, the need to prove that I was educated and that I did not represent the stereotype they had of African people, especially African girls, that of being submissive and primitive. My strategy was to do everything possible to blend in. One is a good cook in a fine dining restaurant when you don’t stand out and the chef never calls your name during service. This means that you have become a perfect part in the well-oiled machine. For me, this meant chemically straightening my hair just so as not to have a ‘rough looking’ messy afro, speaking perfect French during service, and moving faster than anyone else in the kitchen.
It became very hard when I started thinking in terms of colonial oppression and asking myself: “Why do they think their food and cooking techniques are superior? Why am I allowing a French chef to yell at me, a Senegalese girl from a former French colony? Why am I making food that has no connection to who I am?”. However, I kept telling myself that there was a method to the madness. I put my head down and learnt the different but amazing cooking skills.
I believe working in a high paced fine dining environment has allowed me to explore my personal insecurity as a woman and as a Senegalese, and subsequently to carve the path in which I will choose to represent my cultural heritage.
I am not ready to work in a restaurant setting again, instead I want to share my Senegalese background through cooking classes that reflect the way my grandmother made djolof rice. Senegalese food is something you make with a group of people, and eat together in one bowl. I would love to share the way we use the communal eating bowl to educate children and show them not to rush when eating, and to be satisfied with what they are given. I want to have pop up dinner parties in different spaces where I live, in Vancouver, where the participants can cook and eat together. I want to create a food experience that reduces the need for rigid hierarchy and celebrates individualism; a space that embraces my kinky hair, my love for smoked fish and okra. Only after my experiences, have I came to realise that food is one of the strongest tools to advocate for social justice. One can use food to teach history, tolerance, and the acceptance of the so called OTHER.
I now understand that by choosing to be a chef, I am celebrating my country!