The Local, June 24, 2010, image by Frankie Edozien
Pierre Thiam, owner of the Brooklyn restaurants Yolele and Le Grand Dakar, competed against Bobby Flay in “Battle: Papaya” on “Iron Chef America,” which aired Sunday. Mr. Flay won the cooking contest, but Mr. Thiam said he was more concerned with competing against himself, a battle he feels he won.
Tonight at Le Grand Dakar, at 285 Grand Avenue, you can ring in summer and celebrate Mr. Thiam’s “Iron Chef” appearance at the Senagalese Summer party, which will feature African music and art, food and unlimited sangria. Tickets are $25 ($30 at the door).
We sat down with Mr. Thiam to talk about battle papaya, as well as tonight’s party. Here is the condensed interview:
How did you get to be on Iron Chef?
They called me one day. I got a message that there was a call from California to call back. And I called back and it was “Iron Chef,” asking me to be on the show.
What did you do to prepare?
I had about a month’s notice before the show, so I selected my sous chefs. At the time I was giving a class at the French Culinary Institute. I did a session. I realized that they had the whole amazing state-of-the-art kitchen just like the one on “Iron Chef,” and they allowed me to use the kitchen for my training. Every week I would go three or four times with my team, and we would just prepare, have fun with those toys and gadgets in the kitchen.
How do you adapt what you’ve prepared ahead of time for the secret ingredient?
Being a cook is really about being creative and knowing your ingredients and being quick, because most times in the kitchen, you have to be able to make quick decisions with the ingredients that you have around you. For that whole month before the show was taped, we would pretty much put ourselves in that “Iron Chef” situation and take some odd ingredients and train accordingly. At that moment, your experience comes into action, and your creativity. It’s the fun of cooking.
How did you pick your sous chef team?
It was interesting, because one of the sous chefs works with me on caterings… This one guy, I don’t know if he was psychic or something, but a day or two after the call from California to be invited on “Iron Chef,” he was just having this weird conversation and he said, “You know Pierre, my dream is to be with you on ‘Iron Chef.’” This is a guy that watches “Iron Chef” – I don’t really watch “Iron Chef,” but this guy watched religiously, and he had been just dreaming about it for some reason, and it just happened that he mentioned it the day or two after I was called, so I was like, OK, you’ll be on the team.
When they tell you on the show what the ingredient is, how do you decide what to make from what you’ve prepared?
You have already an idea… The ingredient can only be either vegetable, a grain or a meat, fish or whatever. So we have our mind, if it’s a vegetable, if it’s a fruit, we go in this direction. So we have kind of a frame.
We have a way to communicate. The advantage with my team is that we are all speaking French…We could communicate, and we chose a code that was easy for us.
What made you select Bobby Flay to compete against?
I arrived in New York in the late 1980s and Bobby Flay’s restaurant, Mesa Grill, came up around the early 1990s. At that time I was already starting to experiment with ethnic cuisine, with my cuisine. In this restaurant in SoHo – I was working in SoHo at the time – they kind of had given me a certain freedom on the menu, so I was implementing a few — it was really baby steps of African cuisine on the menu. And Bobby Flay was doing ethnic as well at the time, but he was doing Mexican, Southwestern. So he was an inspiration and he was already succeeding at what he was doing.
What expectations did you have about the show before you got there?
Of course you dream of winning, but it wasn’t as important as it may be for others to me. The challenge was to represent in the proper way within the time frame, one hour, to be able to deliver my five dishes and to be proud of what I’ve delivered. So my competition was really me against myself and my team; we weren’t really worried about what Bobby Flay was doing. As a matter of fact, I just found out what Bobby Flay was doing when I watched the show. I didn’t even know what he was doing because I was just completely concentrated, focused on what my delivery would have been.
How did you feel when they announced the winner?
Honestly, it was all right. It was quite all right. Like I said, I wasn’t worried about the judges, I was worried myself and I had won at the end, when I finished everything.
[Flay] has done a thousand plus “Iron Chefs.” This was my first. It’s pretty impressive to me. That studio is unbelievable. The smoke, the lights, the cameras in your face. It’s not the ideal kitchen. You have to be somewhat prepared for that mentally. There’s a lot of distraction. While you’re cooking, you really need to have all your five senses. That’s the only activity where you need all five senses to be complete – you have to hear, you have to smell, you have to taste, you have to have the visual, because the plating must be beautiful.
What would you do differently?
I’d be more mindful of what the environment will be like. I had no clue, really, I knew the show but I don’t even have a TV at home, so I could prepare myself better in that aspect. Other than that, I wouldn’t do much different. I’d come and give the best.
I know whoever is an Iron Chef is able to deliver, so what’s the point? The rest is just relative. The judges have their own tastes and it could go either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is your own integrity, the food comes out and the flavors are there and whoever eats it tastes that you’ve been cooking it sincerely.
What did you think about the ingredient they chose?
It was a good “Iron Chef” ingredient.
Do you use it on your own a lot?
I don’t do much cooking with it; I have a green papaya salad on the menu right now that’s pretty much the only thing I have. We use it as a tenderizer, as well; it’s very good for tenderizing. You go to a show like this and any ingredient could be chosen. I am not judging their choice.
Have you seen impact so far on your restaurant?
Sure, it’s funny how these things are watched. Just on my Facebook account, my Blackberry has been vibrating with requests for friendship with people from all over the country. It’s just hilarious. It’s really beautiful, the quote-unquote friends from Facebook, and they’re all supporting me and thought I should have won and it just feels good to see that people did appreciate what I did.
Tell me about the party that you’re having.
It’s a great opportunity to bring everyone together… The “Iron Chef” show is really an opportunity to organize this party but the party was already an idea; we wanted to do it. Just because we think we still need to introduce people to our cuisine. African food is not really known. It’s far from being mainstream. It’s terrible, because our food is timely, it’s healthy. People are really conscious about what they’re eating. Our grains are very nutritious, and it’s delicious, and I think once people really get familiar with it they will come and ask for more.
I intend to present not only the food, but the whole culture. The restaurant is not only a restaurant, it’s a cultural center. We’ll have music as well from the continent; we’ll have two amazing bands playing. We also have artwork on the walls. These paintings are being sold and the benefits go to a school in Kenya. It’s not only about Senegal; it’s about pan-Africanism in this restaurant, so we present food from the west African continent, artwork from different parts of the world. The music — Thursday we have a Nigerian band, we have a Kenyan band. So it’s going to be an African party.
So, do you want a rematch?