Alice Waters, the iconic Berkeley chef who popularized fresh fava beans, baked goat cheese salads, and California-style woodfired pizzas (sorry, Wolfgang) is hoping to help do the same for fonio, the West African super grain. To that end, she’s invited Pierre Thiam, the Senegalese-born chef, author, and New York City restaurateur who’s been championing fonio in the U.S, to be a guest at this weekend’s Chez Panisse Sunday market on December 12. Waters says she’s been fascinated with Senegalese cuisine since meeting filmmaker Ousmane Sembène in the 1970s and has been “all in” on the grain ever since Thiam offered to cook her lunch and tell her about its history and nutritious properties.
Thanks to Thiam, the West African grain is becoming more popular in America, and his line of Yolélé flavored fonio mixes and chips are available in Target stores nationwide. He and his wife Lisa relocated to El Cerrito during the pandemic, and he’s thrilled to make his Bay Area pop-up debut this weekend. Not only is Chez Panisse an “iconic place,” Thiam says, but he also estimates it’s the first time the restaurant will feature food of African inspiration.
Thiam’s vegetarian-friendly menu includes fonio chips with smoky black-eyed pea dip, Yolélé fonio and beet salad with pomegranate and spicy pickled carrots, plus a couple of Senegalese favorites such as thieboudienne (sea bass in a parsley sauce with sweet potatoes and red jollof rice) and grilled chicken yassa with caramelized onions, lime confit, and sautéed kale. The full menu will be available on the Sunday market website, where diners can place orders beginning Friday, December 10 for pick-ups on Sunday at noon.
The idea for a Thiam x Chez Panisse fonio pop-up was hatched when the two chefs met at a private luncheon in late July. Thiam brought a fonio salad with mango, tomatoes, spiced cashews, and mint, which Waters loved. “She’s so cool. I love her not only because of what she represents but also because she’s generous and really has a way of being curious,” Thiam says. ”She sent me this beautiful card, with the intention of seeing fonio become this household grain.” Waters adds that she hopes the pop-up leads to a “delicious revolution,” where fonio becomes more widely understood and sought after in the Bay Area and beyond.
While fonio was available in West African communities in the United States even before Thiam took up the grain as a cause, the chef focuses specifically on marketing the grain to diners and cooks outside of the African diaspora; it’s a versatile substitute for rice, corn, quinoa, wheat, and pasta and loaded with iron; protein; the amino acids cysteine, which helps with hair growth; and methionine. And Fonio’s nearly impossible to mess up: If it’s dry, just add more water, and if it’s too soupy, cook it a bit longer. Thiam, who shows off fonio’s versatility at his fast-casual restaurant Teranga in New York’s Harlem, says creating a strong U.S. market for fonio grown in West Africa is exciting because the grain is an important cash crop for small farmers in Mali, Senegal, and Nigeria.
Pick up available at Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, on Sunday, Dec. 12 from noon to 3 p.m.