This week, award-winning chef, author, and social activist, Pierre Thiam shares his unexpected path into the culinary arts and how food is integral to the way kindness shows up in communities and kitchens.
Jaclyn is joined by chef, author, and social activist, Pierre Thiam. Together, they discuss Pierre's journey as a chef, the importance of kindness to the environment, and how kindness transcends cultures.
Pierre is Executive Chef of multiple award-winning restaurants around the world, and his company Yolele Foods advocates for smallholder farmers in the Sahel by opening new markets for crops grown in Africa. He has cooked for the King of Morocco, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Through his advocacy and many media appearances, he has become known as a culinary ambassador, dedicated to promoting West African cooking throughout the world. His TEDTalk, given at TEDGlobal 2017 in Arusha, Tanzania, has been viewed over one million times. Thiam sits on the board of directors of IDEO.org and SOS Sahel, and on the advisory board for the Culinary Institute of America.
This podcast is one of the many ways we live out our organization's mission to educate and inspire people to choose kindness. Visit our site kindness.org and sign up to become a part of our global community which spans more than 100 countries. It's free to join and when you do you'll be the first to get access to our latest research, tools, and even episodes of this podcast. Let's build a kinder world, together. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social at @kindnessorg.
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Why Kindness? Pierre Thiam
Intro: Kindness. Why kindness? Because it makes a difference. For connection. Kindness can change lives. It's contagious. The science says you'll be glad you did. Kindness is...the key to a healthier, happier world.
Jaclyn: Why kindness? While no one answer is the same, one thing is clear. Kindness is something we all know, but do we know why it matters?
I'm your host, Jaclyn Lindsey, co-founder, CEO of kindness.org. And you're listening to ‘Why Kindness’.
Hello, hello, friends, and welcome to another incredible episode of the Why Kindness? podcast. I am very excited about our guest today. And before I welcome him, I'm going to give a little bit of background on the incredible gentleman, chef, world-renowned chef, Pierre Thiam is a chef, author, and social activist, best known for bringing West African cuisine to the global fine dining world.
He is the executive chef of the award winning restaurant NOK by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria, and the signature chef of the five-star Pullman Hotel in Dakar, Senegal. He is also the executive chef and co-owner of Teranga, a fast-casual food chain from New York City. And his company, Yolélé Foods, advocates for small holder farmers in the Sahel by opening new markets for crops grown in Africa.
The signature product, Yolélé Fonio, is found in Whole Foods, Amazon, and other retailers. He has so many incredible awards, um, and publications, uh, and just recently also, uh, released a new cookbook, which we'll talk about today. But more than that, he's also a husband to his wife, Lisa Katayama, and a father to their daughters, Na'ia and Maria'isa. Also to their dog, Malcolm.
Okay. With that, I am so honored and thrilled to welcome Pierre Thiam. Thank you, Pierre, for being with us today.
Pierre: It's my pleasure, Jaclyn. Thank you for inviting me.
Jaclyn: All right. So we are going to dive in and we always like to open with this big question. Why kindness?
What would you say to why kindness, Pierre?
Pierre: Why kindness? Um, because without kindness, I can't even, um, there's no peace that kindness. There's no peace of mind. There's no peace in our community. There's no harmony. And why kindness in my culture kindness, I'm from Senegal, right? So we also have our highest value is a word called hospitality, teranga that translates as hospitality, but it really is kindness and a belief that when you give, you receive really, so that kindness is a way for you to, to, um, to, to receive back kindness. If you give kindness, you receive back kindness. If you give something else, you will receive something similar, you know, of that same type of energy.
So kindness is the most positive energy you could give out. And it's free. And it's something that, you know, everyone has. It's, uh, you know, it's, you don't need money for kindness. So. Why not kindness is the question.
Jaclyn: I love that. Why not kindness? Yes, that's a definite social quote. I want to talk a little bit about your journey and upbringing in Senegal and the idea for kindness when I think about it.
It's globally understood. It transcends Borders and, you know, age and, uh, race and, you know, all these different things that people see sometimes as barriers. But I believe kindness can help us overcome that. With your culture, your background, your upbringing in Senegal, tell us a little bit, how was kindness taught? How was it understood from your youngest of age that you can remember? What were your experiences with kindness where you grew up?
Pierre: So, uh, I just mentioned earlier about this value called teranga. Teranga is the highest value in Senegal, and, and really kindness is the way to, to that symbolizes it. You know, it's not, uh, it translates hospitality, but it really is, um, symbolized by kindness.
So you are, uh, born in a, a community, in a society where the order has to be offered Teranga. And by offering Teranga, you're offering kindness. So if you come to Senegal, for instance, you Jaclyn, and you come to a home, any home, whether they know you or they don't know you, those people practice Teranga by showing kindness to you, by welcoming you to their home.
Usually they're offering you food, even if you're not expected for meal. It's like, that's that gesture. Food is also a great medium to show your kindness. So you offer food or you offer a drink to that person. And Jaclyn, even if you're not hungry, you have to take a bite. You have to accept kindness.
You never refuse the kindness that's offered to you and the way to, uh, why you have to accept it because those people in my culture who offer you that kindness, they have a belief that the person who comes to their home, especially the unexpected one, you Jaclyn, in this case, you are actually an angel that's bringing some blessings to them.
And the way for them to receive the blessings is by taking the kindness that they're offering to you. So that's how they receive it. So if you say, no, thank you, I'm not hungry. So they get hurt because they're not going to get the blessings from you. So that's, that's, uh, so we grow up with that belief.
You know, we grew up, this is our culture. And like I said, Teranga is the highest value in Senegal, and that's actually why I call my restaurant Teranga. That's really what it is. It's like you mentioned the word transcending. It's really something that transcends borders, that transcends cultures. And we think that's also the path to harmony.
So that's how we grew up in Senegal.
Jaclyn: And when did you leave Senegal? How old were you?
Pierre: I was in my early 20s, late 19s, early 20s. And I was coming in the U.S. with a plan of finishing my degrees in physics and chemistry. I had been in, uh, in college and university in Dakar, Dakar University. And when we left, we left because, uh, the school had been closed for political unrest.
You know, Senegal is...students were very, very political and we had been in a series of strikes that year that went for so long that the government decided to close the university down. It was kind of a crazy strikes slash riots. And for me, and many of my peers, the only way forward to finish our education was to find, uh, another school somewhere else, you know, and most people in Senegal would go to France because that's the colonizing countries the closest close enough.
And for me, I'm always, you know, going against the current. And somehow I found this school in Ohio out of all places that accepted my application and I got a student visa and I was on my way to Ohio. I was on my way there to finish my degree in physics and chemistry and there's no direct flight from Dakar to Cleveland so I had to stop by New York.
A friend of mine who also had left Senegal a little before me offered hospitality, Teranga, to me, like saying, while you're in New York, why don't you stay for a couple of weeks and, and, and visit New York and then, uh, and then take a bus to Ohio. And that was a plan, you know, first opportunity to be in New York, you know, heard about it for so long all my childhood.
So that was there. And, uh, that, uh, visit to New York that's supposed to last two weeks lasted 30 years. So, so I never, I never made it to Ohio. So that's, that's, that's a longer story and a story involved not so much kindness in the beginning. You know, I got robbed three days after I arrived in New York.
So, so, so that, that wasn't kind, but that turned out to be a blessing because this is really how I found my different path. And, uh, and another friend who happened to be also from the community, Senegalese community that lived in New York, happened to be working in a restaurant. And he was kind enough to look for a job for me in that restaurant.
I was broke. Everything was taken from me. And I was like returning home. I had a return ticket. I was like, this city is not for me. America is crazy. I was coming from Dakar, which is, you know, there's so much kindness and love and small city and seaside. I mean, everything, everything I love, the food was amazing.
So I was going to return on three days, get robbed. You know, the city is cold, but my friend who was kind enough to offer me this job as a bus boy in a restaurant where he was working and I took the job, you know, for me, the plan was make some extra money and, and get out of New York, you know, or go back home.
And that's changed everything for me. So that's how it started.
Jaclyn: Wow. Wow. What a journey. Um, before you left Senegal, so growing up there, you know, you hit on both kindness but also political strife and, you know, these different complications. When you think of Taranga, do you see it translate to all aspects of how Senegal operates?
Is Taranga only about in your home, or is it something about the harmony of how you live as a collective?
Pierre: Oh, absolutely. It's the harmony of how you live as a collective. And, and, uh, I'm not just saying that everyone who has experienced it, everyone who has been to Senegal, they, they, they, they feel it.
It's a, you feel it, you know, people are very, very friendly and welcoming and, and helpful. You know, if you seem lost somewhere, you know, you will find people jumping to help you. And again, sharing is something, that something that we have been taught at an early age as well, you know, another to answer your question earlier.
How does kindness values are inserted? So we eat around the ball, right? This is something that we do in Senegal. Everyone is sitting around the ball and there are some etiquette and eating around the ball and you learn to you know, by sharing you have your, your section of the ball that you imagine right in front of you, and that's a triangle in front of you and the person next to you. They each have their triangle and each person eats from the triangle and the meats and the vegetables are in the middle of the ball, you know, the rest are the grains right and the gravy and the meats and vegetables you have to wait as a kid, you have to wait for your mom to distribute it around to everyone equally.
And there's like a feeling, there's like moments of sharing and loving and trusting. You know that everyone is going to be treated equally, and that's also an opportunity to teach you certain values, you know, not only, you know, being patient and content with your portion, but also to learn how to start to learn sharing, which is part of kindness to, you know, you learn to share your food with people.
And that's, that translates. In the whole community, in the whole society, really. And, uh, and, you know, I mean, our national team of soccer, which is the biggest game over there, they called the Lions of Teranga, you know, so it's like the lions of kindness. So it's like, you know, and they carry that name with pride, you know, it's just, uh, it's really a value that we, we really, um, have much, much respect for in Senegal.
And you'll see it, uh, around the country. I mean, that word is like written everywhere. It's like our, like our motto.
Jaclyn: Wow. Wow. Okay. So, so now back to being in your young, young 20 self, um, in New York city, tell us a little bit, you had this, sounds like the unkindness, but then the balance of kindness, you get this job.
Um, I'm assuming this was the foray into who you are today as this incredible chef and restaurant owner. So I'd love to know a little bit about that path. What was it like going from bus boy to where you are today?
Pierre: Yeah, it was, it was a path of like, uh, it was obviously, I wouldn't lie, it was tough, right?
From busboy to dishwasher to today, right? And fast forward, you know, having several restaurants and several cookbooks and all of those things. It was not easy, but lots of kindness along the way. So it begins there when I'm like busboy, you know, that's the job where my very first job, right? I don't need any particular skills.
All I have to do is empty the dirty plates from the restaurant and take them into the kitchen. And that kitchen is, to me, the kindest place as a busboy. First of all, I'm arriving in the kitchen and I see that there is only men in that kitchen and I'm coming from a culture where cooking belongs to women.
So it's like a cultural shock, you know? Yeah and, and those guys are like you know, they become my comrades. I mean, it's just, and starting with the chef. The chef, he loved me because he could practice his French with me. You know, he had been to France at some time in his career and, and he loved to practice it.
So he liked that. He liked my energy. He liked my story too. He knew I was, you know, hustling to get out of here. And he said, okay, look, I am going to give you another opportunity. You know, when you finish your busboy shifts, I have dishwashing shifts that can be for you. You make extra money, you know, you and I, I'll be there coaching you.
This is how I started. That's him talking, right? I mean, he kind of almost a father figure, you know, like he started this way. He was, uh, you know, the old school, you know, from the bottom up. And, uh, he thought, you know, because he saw me spending so much time in the kitchen with my new kind friends, he thought I loved cooking.
I love that, that, that vibe, you know, and he's like, okay, come and do it. Uh, you know, and, and, and I hated dishwasher. I hated it. It was so hard. You know, I was like, it looked like they were giving me the, the, you know, at the end of the shift, the dirtiest thing. And I was the one doing it, but it was such a formative time.
And I'm really thankful for that. And even today, when I hire people at my restaurants, I like to have people who have gone through that path rather than people who just come out straight from culinary school because it's a different, they have different ethics, I guess, when you have, you have more respect for, you know, the whole line in the kitchen when you know what, what it takes to be a dishwasher.
But anyway, eventually, that dishwashing shift turned into prep shift. You know, that's how it goes because the prep guy doesn't show up because last night he got drunk and never showed up and they call the dishwasher and they give you a knife and they start training you into getting chopping vegetables.
And, you know, the chef had a plan for me and he, that's how he started teaching me with much kindness about the prep aspect of the kitchen and after some time I raised to become a grade manger, which is another station of the kitchen. And now I'm like starting to make a little more money and learning something that I could actually experience.
I could taste it. It was good. I was making salads. I was making the cold station of the kitchen and, and, and as I'm growing now I'm seeing not only that I understood what was going on in the kitchen in a way that probably all the cooks didn't understand because of my chemistry background.
I couldn't understand the, the, the reactions. I couldn't understand the, the, the balance of the sources. The oils were like the lipid, the acids were the, the, the, the vinegar, the, the lemon juice, you know, all those things were like, you know, things that I understood in theory. And now I'm like, experimenting it and I'm so, and it's so much more delicious than the university.
So I'm really now seeing this could be a path for me. I'm starting to consider this and, and I'm really into it. And I'm, and chef is so kind to me, you know, and he's a mean guy. I can hear him screaming at everyone, you know, but to me, it's like, he's like, he sees something that he believes in me and he pushes me.
And, and that kindness kept me going, you know? Cause at first, you know, to be honest, I never thought this was a career. You know, it was manual. I always thought I was going, I was an intellectual. You know, I thought all of those things of me, you know, I was really kind of down on myself. I was, that was a dark time, but that was the most important time.
It was a dark time because I didn't think, you know, I was doing much of what I, you know, of life, right? So eventually I went from garde manger to line cook, from line cook to the grill, from the sous chef, and this is over the years, and then left that restaurant with skills now and went to work in an Italian restaurant.
Work different skills then to a French bistro. Then to, you know, it's New York city. It's like the food capital of the world. It's like the, you know, there's like so much New York had to offer. Kindness to this community of cooking, of chefs where we get together late at night because we work, you know, we work late shifts and then we have a place where we all hang out and that's how we learn more about who we are, about each other, about our craft. And I'm like in love with this. But I have another, uh, question, bigger question. I'm asking myself, this city is called the food capital of the world and, and I don't see my world in here.
You know, I see, you know, great Italian, French, Chinese, Indian. I don't see African food. The great flavors of West Africa I grew up eating were pretty much absent. And, and, and I, I saw it as an opportunity and it became a mission. I was like, I'm going to find as I grow in this career, I'm going to find my inspiration from this cuisine.
First, the cuisine of my memory, you know, the food that my mom would cook, my grandma would cook, the food that I was eating the streets of Dakar, which is food from all the regions of West Africa. You know, the Togolese women cooking black eyed pea fritters, and the Benin women making these amazing beignets that you see in New Orleans.
That started right there in West Africa. And acarajé, too, that you see in Brazil. That's also in West Africa. You know, the jollof rice and the peanut sauce and the gumbo that you see in Louisiana. That was also started in West Africa. So all of those cuisines, those flavors became my inspiration. And over the years, I, you know, I left the restaurant, the last restaurant I was working in in Soho where I had been promoted to chef de cuisine.
You know, it was a very popular restaurant that had, so popular we had three locations. I was sent to open one in South Beach, Miami. I returned after that winter and said, okay, I'm going to stick to my path now and start my catering and that catering is going to be focused on the food from my memory.
And that started, that catering became my first restaurant in early 2000 in Brooklyn in Bed Stuy. When, when Bed Stuy was, was, was the hood at the time, you know, before it got gentrified, that's all I could afford at the time. But I started my first restaurant there. And, uh, that restaurant became a destination.
It was like, you know, new flavors to New York, New York Times writing about it right after we opened. So I knew it was set on that path but there was so much more to learn, so much more, uh, challenges ahead, but kindness along the way that got me through, even opening the restaurant, getting the support from my early, my early supporters that got me going there with believing in something I don't even know why they just believed.
I never ran a restaurant before, but they believed that I knew what I was doing. I didn't, but I knew that I knew the flavors. I knew the food, but the management part was another challenge that I had to learn along the way. But again, you know, I'm grateful because, you know, if it wasn't for all that kindness along the way, you know, I don't think this would happen today with, you know, having opened all these restaurants and written four cookbooks.
Even the story of my first cookbook, you know, it's like another story of kindness. Because, um, I couldn't see any publisher. No one thought, you know, the book on African food was needed. No one knew that food that could be right. You know, there was so much unknown and, and, and, uh, misunderstandings about what African food was, West African food in particular.
And, uh, and for me, I had been now, by the time I had been collecting recipes from my mom, writing them down, serving some at the restaurant, doing my own research. And then this notebook of recipes. I thought, you know, this is a cookbook. And I'm a friend of mine, Adam Bartos, another very kind friend who was a great photographer, world class photographer.
He also believed in it. And he was like, okay, let's go to Senegal. I'll do the photography. You perfect the recipes. And then we, we try to find a publisher, which we did. Uh, we went to did a great time. We took him all the way down to the village from the car to the village in the south of my parents are from and spent time with the aunties and the grandma's beautiful photos of the people in the food culture.
And, uh, and still, we couldn't find a publisher until we found this most kind person who had a publishing company called Lake Isle Press, and her name is Hiroko. And Hiroko was like, You know, she was like, yes. After I was about to give up, I had given about maybe 100 different, you know, uh, book proposals around and no agents were like, oh, no, this is not, you know, no one.
And, and Hiroko immediately, she said, okay, don't show it to anyone. Let me take a look at it. And then in the same, same day in the afternoon, she called me like, okay, we need to talk, you know, I see something and she was like this, she was this older, she's, she's still, she's great. She's amazing. You know, she believed in it.
And then we did this book and the book got finalist of the Julia Child Award. And Hiroko was like, I knew it. And everyone was like, what is this?
Jaclyn: Yeah. All those hundred proposals beforehand.
Pierre: Now they're ready to sign books. So it's a, it's a, it was, you know, it was a journey. I know again, kindness was, um, I know I was blessed.
I mean, even, even the guy who robbed me. I mean, it was a blessing because I would have been in Ohio and then finished as a chemical engineer somewhere like my friend who had come with me and who went through that path.
Jaclyn: With the experience of being in two, you know, having two cultures basically, now that you're very familiar with being here in the UU.S. and coming from Senegal, I'm curious what you feel are the differences of how kindness is understood and how it shows up in these different places and cultures.
Obviously, they're very different countries. Um, and U.S. is a melting pot, as we know, of people from all over the world. Um, but yeah, I'm wondering what that experience is like if you were to juxtapose Senegal to where you are today. Um, How do you see kindness show up differently, or how does it show up the same?
Pierre: Um, I think it's, it's different, and it's both, both, uh, obviously kindness is kindness, and, and, and, and it's, uh, so there's no, there's no better, right? So, you know, in the U.S., like I said, you know, I felt kindness along the way, and most of the times that kindness was coming from, uh, people, I guess, who they, there's got to be a certain rapport.
They got to, they get to know you and then the kindness is shared, you know, generously, very generously. And, uh, and again in Senegal, that kindness actually is often time directed to the person you don't know, right? And, uh, and, and, and, and, and, and that's, uh, that's, that's, I guess that's, that's a different approach, you know, so there's a, an element of trust that comes with kindness.
I guess you call it karma in other cultures, right? You know that this is gonna come back to you, you know, and in the U.S. like you, you, you get to know this person and then you say, okay, I can trust this person. Okay. I will help him get his restaurant. Okay. I will help her get him or her get this book done.
You know, cause I trust him and the book is going to work, you know, and this restaurant is going to work. And, you know, and that's the person I am comfortable with, you know. In, in, in Senegal, you come into somebody's home and they're like, Oh, well, who's this person? It's like, I mean, you obviously are not from Senegal. You Jaclyn, you know, white woman, long hair. It's like, that's the person you want to show kindness to, you know? And, uh, I guess in the U.S. you'd be suspicious of someone you don't know.
So that's, that's the difference, you know, before giving that kindness.
Jaclyn: Yeah. I love thinking about that, like, what if we just assumed the best and I think that's hard, you know, I think it's probably a tall order for people to get behind but that's how I try to operate is just believing the best and we're all in this big world together. So, how can we try to, you know, overcome the things that might separate us, but see it as an opportunity to love someone, be kind to someone. So I really like that. And obviously I'm going to come visit Senegal. So I'll let you know when I go, so you can introduce me to your wonderful community.
Pierre: You won't need introduction. You will find yourself.
You know, really, people will embrace you and you'll find yourself invited to places. I remember working on a second cookbook. I mean, every time I went, traveled to Senegal with people. I mean, I traveled to Senegal with so many people. But just one example is Evan Sung, my second and this last cookbook.
And his first time in Senegal, he's, he's American. Taiwan is American, right? So he is definitely not fitting in the, you know, uh, profiling, you know, in Senegal. So he arrives and, you know, the next day he comes to me because we've been shooting around and sometimes he goes out and shoots by himself. He's like this guy, right? And, um, and then he's like, oh, I met this guy, you know, and he's inviting me to meet his family for lunch tomorrow.
You know, and I mean, he looks like a cool guy, but I mean, it's like, you know, I just barely met him and I'm like, that's how it goes. And then he went and they're still friends today. You know, he had a good friend and that's just because, you know, I was like, okay. So, yes. So that's, uh, that's how you would be in Senegal.
People would welcome you. You know, I did a trip with, um, the late Anthony Bourdain there and himself also had this experience and he even wrote a blog about that. He was like, you know, cause when we were there, that was a time when, you know, the U.S. was going, Trump was beginning his campaign and he was, there was this whole thing about Muslim countries and Trump was saying, they shouldn't give visa to Muslim countries, some story like that.
And so, Anthony Boudin wrote this blog because Senegal is a majority Muslim country, you know, and he's like, you know, I'm in this country and I can't believe I'm from the U.S. at this moment. This political campaign is taking place and, you know, and it's about, you know, uh, canceling Muslims and stuff. And, and I'm in this country where, you know, the founding father is actually a Christian, you know, and, and he's like a respected figure in Senegal.
And it's like, you know, and, and I'm being shown love, you know, even though I'm obviously not a Muslim and I can have my drink, my beer, my wine anywhere I want, you know, it was kind of like this experience he was saying, but he was saying that as like Senegal was quite, uh, unique experience for him, and he was being shown love, you know, particularly because he was a foreigner.
Jaclyn: Wow. Thank you for sharing that. That's very powerful. I'm curious, obviously, you know, speaking of, of someone like Anthony, you know, there's, um, one, I think there's the idea that chefs, they get a bad rap for being mean and loud and, you know, hurtful and bossy and, um, mistreating people, you know, et cetera.
So I think we've seen the dramatized version on shows, um, and movies, but what, what does it look like for you leading a restaurant as a chef who wants to embody kindness and extend the kindness throughout your kitchen? And what do you think about the idea that chefs are unkind to get the job done or in the name of a Michelin star or whatever they're seeking?
What do you think of that?
Pierre: Yeah, I think it's also, um, It's a myth, really, you know, I mean, it's a myth and obviously it is real. You have lived in kitchens where chefs were like, you know, I don't know the words I could use in this podcast, but they were unkind, right?
Jaclyn: Friendly words. Friendly. Yeah. Unkind.
Pierre: But, but also the, the, the, the chef that truly impacted me.
Were the kindest ones. You know, I mean, my true mentor, Jeffrey Murray, who's like, you know, this chef that really coached me to become who I am and to follow my path actually into bringing the food for my culture. So having my own voice in the kitchen, he was the kindest person. He was this you know, he's from California. He lived in the, he had a restaurant in New York, very successful restaurant.
He was a Buddhist, right? He was like, I mean, you know, with him, I got into meditation. I mean, we were like brothers, but the kindest person, never, never have I, or maybe once or twice, have I heard him yell in the kitchen. In the other hand, though, the chef de cuisine in that same restaurant was like this crazy Italian, Vinny.
I mean, he would be yelling as soon as you entered the kitchen, he would yell and he's, I mean, he had nerves popping out his head. I mean, he was, his eyes were bulging out red. I loved him. And you know what? So that guy was kind to me, but he was also the guy, you see the typical chef you see on TV yelling.
I mean, Vinny was. I mean, poor guy. I hope he's okay. I mean, I felt, you know, I was worried because, you know, it's like, actually, you know, when you show unkindness, you really hurting yourself. So I was worried for his health, really, because he was like, you know, and deep inside he was a beautiful guy, you know, so sometimes you buy into this myth that even myself, I did that chefs have to be, you know, um, hard to make sure things happen in the kitchen.
Sometimes you need to have certain discipline but that can happen without you being unkind, you know, and I tried being that person. You know some people who have worked under me may even describe me as a tough person but in general people who work under me and who I still work, I have people in my kitchen who still work with me 20 years later. I mean, the people, my two chefs in New York, they're still with me. I can be here in California and I trust that they are going to do the right thing. And they're running the restaurants in New York City. And I have never had any problem with them. And, you know, I have respect them. I love them.
I mean, they are brothers. I mean, we traveled around the world together. And we do and share that are great. No, all the people that really lasted with me are people who can tell you that I'm not, I'm not Gordon Ramsay or anyone, you know, and yeah, and you don't have to be, you don't have to be, you know, well, you know, one thing also is food is, you know, it sounds cliche, but the love ingredient is so much, you know, it makes such a big difference, you know, so if you have people who work in a loving, uh, kind environment, the food also, you know, fills it and it comes out in the plate, you know, so.
Jaclyn: Yeah, and I think related to that, I see the dinner table as a place where people can heal and difficult things can be discussed, but you're breaking bread together and also, you know, you think heading into the holidays, uh, and how difficult the family table can be or the dinner table can be when you're going home to a difficult family situation.
So I, I know there's both sides of it. I'm curious if you have any stories that you can share an example where you've seen good things happen around a dinner table that you were a part of, whether through your restaurants. I know you've, you know, cooked for lots of people before, but have you seen anything where it's like food brought people together and magic happened?
Good things happened at that dinner table.
Pierre: Well, food always brings people together. You know, that's, that was what food, what that's, you know, that element of food that, unfortunately, uh, has you know, disappeared in some, some places in, in this in this fast society. You know, I remember, you know, that I'm like divesting here.
But, um, my mom when she first came to visit me and and we're in the subway in New York City, and she's like shocked at this guy eating a pizza by himself in the train. And she's like, you know, she just, that's something she can't grasp, you know, eating alone. You know, it's food has to be something you share, you know, you have to, so she's from, from that culture.
So again, to answer that to, to, to make that comment that, that's the role of food. Food is, is really, um, food is culture. And that's where you know, it began this way. When we started cooking, you know, we started letting fire and then cooking and cooking, inviting people around to share that. And that's when civilization begins, right?
So this is the role of food. And this is the, the, the, the, the, the, the, the role food played in our, in our, in, in, in humanity, you know, it's like it brought civilization and, and, and it disappeared. Because food has been hijacked. The food system, you know, has been hijacked to a place where, you know, it's, uh, you know, it's not only in harmony, you know, it's no longer in harmony with, with nature, with, uh, the, the, the farmers, uh, uh, you know, just farming year-round for the same product without respecting the seasons.
Uh, and putting insurance to just bring, you know, the, you know, shareholders, the profits that they're looking to get. So it's a system that is, you know, definitely unkind, you know, unkind to the soil and unkind to, you know, and you, and you feel it and you eat it too.
And I know I'm not answering your question, but I just want to, to brush that part, you know, it's like the, the, the way you treat, the way you grow your food. The way you treat the people who grow the food, the way you treat the, the, the, even the, the, the, the cows and, and, and whatever you eat, the chicken, if you don't treat them right, you know, it comes into your plate. You know, if you don't, if that chicken weren't free roaming and weren't eating the right thing, and you fed it these hormones and they've been like living all their lives into pens, like hundreds of them, you know, that's a stressed chicken that you're going to eat.
And at the end of the day, you're not having food, you know, having food, you're having, uh, you, you, your putting something in your system to sustain and that's just postponing it to like, you, you, you end up in, in, in with some kind of a disease for sure, you know, one way or another, but at the end of the day, it's just for, for profits.
And, and that's, that's really, um, not the kind of food, the role of food and food is, should be about kindness from the beginning at the, you know, in the soil or in the farm, all the way to the table when everyone together, that's still, that's still part of the food, that, that moment, that community is sharing that moment.
And so have I had moments where I've seen the food playing that role? Um, You know, as I was giving you that long-winded answer, I'm like trying to think of those moments, and I'm sure there's plenty of them, I'm sure there's plenty, because that's like happened every day. I mean, that miracle is every day, you know, so just giving you that one example, you know.
How important it is that sharing around the table. Growing up in Dakar, at noon, everything stops. You feel like the country comes to a stop. And everyone goes home to share the meal together. And that moment is like the moment where you just bringing everything that you have and you and you share it with people and it could be the hurts, It could be the joys and that after the meal we stay for like this tea moment just like in Senegal, we call it ataya and that's continuing.
You know, it's just to get you to talk to each other, you know? And if it's, if you have problems, you will solve those problems if you have issues. I mean, it could be, it could, there's no, no taboo. You talk about anything. It could be political, it could be about sports, it could be, and every household have this and the country stops.
And then we start, go back to school at 3:00 PM. I mean, that's like, it's like, uh, you know, it's, uh, you know. When you have a, a, a society that's live to that rhythm around food, they, they are putting space for solving the challenges that they be living in, that each is living in its community and all the way of, of course all, even the wars are ending around the table too.
And so it's like there's, there's just, you know, around the table is where, where problems are solved and where, you know, obviously love stories begin as well. I, It's, it's just, uh, um, the, the way I, I can think of answering it.
Jaclyn: I love that. What is one of your, like, favorite memories that you'll just retain forever?
The one you'll tell your daughters growing up about your experience being a chef.
Pierre: Oh boy. There's so many of those. I mean, my experience being a chef gave me so much, I mean, so much. But, uh, my daughter, I'll probably tell her and uh, and that's later in my career when I met her, her mom. And I met her mom.
Jaclyn: Oh, I don't know this story. Tell, yes.
Pierre: So, so, so I am now this, um, chef who has written a few cookbooks and who has, as I'm writing these cookbooks, noticed that, you know, some of the ingredients, I always have to think of substitutions for the ingredient because I'm talking about West African food and they're not always accessible in the market for my audience here.
And I'm like thinking now, why should I think of substitutions? These ingredients should be accessible. And if these ingredients are accessible, they will have a positive impact on the farming communities back home who are growing those ingredients and they've been growing them just for their subsistence, you know, and particularly Africa, the fact that Africa is a net importer of food never made sense to me because we have all this food that just don't have access to market.
So I'm like, thinking big picture now. I'm like, okay, I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be this guy. I'm gonna be very naive, right? You know because everything's been happening. So it's like, okay, I'll make a way for these ingredients. I'll open, start a brand and you know, and one ingredient in particular caught my attention is called fonio and fonio is like the oldest cultivating grain in Africa and I really got very passionate about fonio.
It's a grain that you could only see in the southeast of Senegal, and it's like some remote regions, but it's very, very delicate and it cooks in five minutes, and it's nutritious, gluten-free, and it grows in poor soil. It regenerates the soil. There's so much going on for fonio. And I'm like, this grain should be a world class grain.
And, and then I'm not going to start a brand and I'll bring it up. And that's how I got to meet Lisa because I started this brand and this brand and like starting to like really getting, you know, some some entering the market now with whole foods. And I decide to talk about it at a TED talk.
So, um, it is that global taking place in Tanzania. And I'm in the, on the stage talking about this ancient grains and Lisa is in the audience listening to me talking about this ancient grain and this chef who's always looking for ways to give back now because all I've received was from my culture and my tradition and this is how I, I created a path for my, uh, career and now I'm like, you know, I can also give back by opening markets for these farmers and, and you know, it's not only giving back to the farmers, It's also giving back to the community who are also here challenged with a limited diet.
Now they have access to new, new products and, and, you know, I'm like, just talking about this dream and talking about how versatile fonio is and even serving fonio, sushi made out of fonio in that TED talk, you know, which is Japanese way of using, uh, you know, African ingredient, just to talk about this versatility.
And, uh, and later on that next morning, I'm invited to this breakfast early morning and Lisa is also invited to that breakfast and the bus is taking us to the breakfast and Lisa has heard my TED talk and she said, hey, you know, we in the bus together and she said, hey, uh, I liked your talk. And uh, and that's how it began.
So, so, it's a food story, but you know, it's not starting in the kitchen.
Jaclyn: I love it.
Pierre: Yeah. Yeah. And that's, uh, you know, at the time...
Jaclyn: that's definitely getting passed down.
Pierre: Yeah. And, and that was in Tanzania. Lisa was living in, in, in San Francisco at the time and I was living in New York at the time.
So, so we, we got to know each other and we for a couple of years did a long-distance relationship that ended up her family moving to New York. We got married, the pandemic hit, we moved back to the East Bay. She always wanted to move to the East Bay and now we have two children and we just finished writing a cookbook together.
So that's the story I would tell my daughter.
Jaclyn: I love it. Oh, Pierre, I love it. So okay. Yes, the cookbook we will have the link in the show notes. Um, I can't wait to try it. What would be the first recipe? Um, if I wanted to make something for me and my family, what would you recommend I go to first?
Pierre: Oh boy, so many of those, but I probably would say, since we're talking about Lisa and Fonio, there's a dish that's inspired by a Japanese porridge, right?
They have a rice porridge that I use. Yeah. I love when we went to Tokyo, to visit her parents. We'd have this for breakfast. And I make it with fonio now. And, uh, and there's a, so it's a Japanese, uh, Afro Japanese fonio porridge. Very simple, very satisfying. And I think you, you like that, you know, to, you know, most of the recipes, all the recipes are quite easy.
You know, the reason for this book is we wanted to show how accessible this cuisine is, you know, West African food is quite, you know, there's, there's a myth about, around it. People don't realize that it's probably the most balanced diet out there, you know, it's like when you see at the bottom of the pyramid of our diet, you have like leafy greens and root vegetables and then beans and grains like fonio.
And then the protein and the, you know, fish and meat come higher in the pyramid, you know, not as, you know, abundantly as the, as the, as the plant food and, and then the dairies and the sweet much higher even. So it's a balanced diet and, and we wanted people to, to realize that and, and to see that Lisa and I and our children, Na'ia and Maria, see we eat that every day.
So, you know, you can do that living in California or, or in, or in Ohio. You know, you can have this healthy, exciting diet every single day. And that diet sometimes, mostly West African inspired sometimes, you know, it, it travels to Japan because Lisa and, uh, and, and, you know, it's, that's, that's a forgiving cuisine as well.
You know, it's a cuisine that, uh, we call it cooking with the senses and that's something I've experienced from learning from my grandparents and my mom.
Jaclyn: Oh, I love that. I love it. Oh, I can't wait. Okay. Um, amazing. So we close our interviews with, um, like a round robin of quick questions. So I'm going to like throw some questions and then you just react quickly.
But before we do that, is there anything else that you would want to speak to about kindness, food, culture, anything that you might not have gotten to say yet?
Pierre: No, I can't think of anything really. I think I, you know, I wanted to talk about how kindness is the way in food, when it comes to food, you know, and it begins at the sourcing of the food.
It begins as how you treat the food, how you treat the vegetables, the way you grow them, you know, and, and if you, if you respect that, if you show kindness to the environment. We all benefit from it. And when you don't show kindness to the environment, when we talk about climate change, you know, people don't realize, but the biggest culprit is the lack of kindness that we have shown in treating our environment.
So that's through the food system, you know, the abuse of water, the pesticides, the chemicals, the fertilizers, all of those things, uh, just a way of not showing kindness to, to, um, to our environment and to the people who are also growing them who are among the poorest in the world, especially when it comes to farmers in Africa, the small farmers among the poorest, they feed like 80 percent of the world and they they don't get the benefit from it.
So we should, there's ways to show kindness and that's a systemic thing. It's a system that we need to tackle.
Jaclyn: I'm curious if people wanted to learn more about that, their role or contribution. Do you have a source or a place that you would direct people to go to understand how to do better, how to be better when it comes to food sourcing, sustainability, things like that?
Pierre: Well, people can, everyone can have an impact. Every day, like three times a day, if you eat lunch, breakfast and dinner by the way you source your ingredients, you know, diversify your diet is one thing, you know, you know, there's so much information that you can get just by looking at the product before buying it and do some research, but do some research and you see that you, you have the power of your, of your wallet or of your fork, you know, however, you say it, or your hand, if you eat with your hands, the way we do in Senegal.
So that's, that's really, uh, everyone can play a role. It's just, um, you know, I can talk on and on about it. I wrote a whole cookbook dedicated to fonio after, after having met Lisa at that TED talk, you know, so it's like that's, and that's just one ingredient. There are thousands of others that we need to, to integrate into our food system.
If we are really serious about bringing solutions to, to our, you know, food security globally.
Jaclyn: Yeah, I'm so inspired to learn more. And honestly, it's like things I feel, Oh yes, I do that and then I'm thinking as you're talking, actually, I'm learning a lot right now and I'm realizing how much more I should probably be looking at and considering my own choices, uh, daily.
So thank you for that. That's the point of this is to help us discover new ways of experiencing kindness. We talk at kindness.org a bit about kindness to mother earth, kindness to the environment, um, and our role as humans, like with our choices. Um, but it's definitely an untapped area, so given me a lot to think about Pierre. So thank you for that.
Um, okay. So how would you define kindness in one word?
Pierre: Kindness in one word. Oh boy. Well, love, I think. If there's one word, kindness is love. You know, if you love, um, If you love, you know, love.
Jaclyn: I love it. I love it. Um, if you could get everyone around the world to do one kind act, what would that kind act be?
Jaclyn: Oh, I love that. Okay. Sharing anything, sharing food...
Pierre: Sharing food, sharing anything, sharing what you, you know, the, the, the best thing to share is something that you, you cherish, you know, something that you, you, you are the, you, you, and so you giving that is, I think the, the, the, the, uh, high type of kindness.
Jaclyn: If kindness were a food, what food would it be?
Pierre: If kindness was food, what food would it be? Oh, boy. That's a tough one. And, uh, okay. And there's a lot of people who won't even get it, but it would be an okra for me as an ingredient.
Jaclyn: Okra. Wait a minute. Hold on.
Pierre: It's my favorite ingredient.
Jaclyn: Really? Wow.
Pierre: I love okra. I love okra because, you know, my mom used to make this really amazing, like the ancestor of gumbo, you know, this okra and seafood dish.
And I learned to love okra in so many different aspects. And I was always shocked when, you know, like a lot of people just, I'm not getting it, you know, and I'm like, I need to, I need to spread the love of Okra.
Jaclyn: I need to spread the love of Okra. That's another one of our taglines for this episode. Okay, good.
Okra. Okay. What are you reading right now? Do you have any or listening to if you do audiobooks?
Pierre: Oh boy. I do. I mean, I do. I have this ADHD mind. I'm reading probably 10 books right now. And, um, the one I'm reading, um, at the moment, I'm listening at the moment is this book, this amazing story. This guy, uh, it's called Can't Hurt Me.
Can't Hurt Me, This amazing story of this, I mean, it just tells you the possibility of human minds. You know, this guy who grew up in this really abusive childhood, his mom is abused by his father and he was just like horrible, you know, gangster kind of father and who turned his life around in the most amazing way through becoming a SEAL.
Yeah, I mean, it's just and, and, and I'm halfway through it, but it's just so fascinating. So I'm learning about it and, and he's a kind person actually. Yeah, he didn't, he didn't learn that meanness from his father. He is this kind person who took his mom out of this misery and, and, and just did this great thing for, for himself and for the world really. So yeah, I'm reading that.
Jaclyn: That's beautiful. Can't Hurt Me. Okay. Um, and then we end always the final thing is we choose kindness. We, we commit to an act of kindness or we do an act together. Um, our first season is sponsored by our friends at Verizon and we're in a call for kindness campaign. So we ask our guests to think about someone they want to say thank you to, or send a loving message to letting them know why they matter to you.
So you can either tell us who you're thinking of that you're going to do this for, you could call them now and do it on the spot together, whatever your comfort level is. Um, but who are you? Yeah. Who's, who do you want to send a message to?
Pierre: To Lisa without any hesitation. Lisa, my wife. And uh.
Jaclyn: Do you want to try to call her?
Pierre: Yeah, sure. She, she, and she and she may call, she may pick up, she may not because we have a, we have a, we have a baby. And uh, let's see.
Jaclyn: That's true. That's true.
Pierre: There she is. Hello, Lisa.
Jaclyn: Hi, Lisa!
Pierre: You can see, oh sorry, she can't see. Jaclyn is on the other... And she just asked me...
Pierre: It was a question who I wanted to be kind to. I was like, this is the last question of the... and I'm like, without hesitation, this is Lisa. I think she's the one I want to...out of all people, I want her to experience my kindness at the best possible way and she deserves it because she is also the kindest person I've known and I love you and I call you so that your audience, Jaclyn could hear it.
Lisa: Well that's very nice, kind.
Pierre: Jaclyn is tearing.
Jaclyn: Oh, that was incredible.
Thank you so much for joining us on this week's episode of the Why Kindness? podcast, sponsored by our friends at Verizon. To learn more about everything you heard today from our wonderful guests, definitely check out our show notes. We hope you're leaving this episode inspired and reminded that every kind act truly does make a difference.
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