Tock: Your pop-up brings modern Senegalese cuisine to New Orleans. What are some Senegalese staples and is it hard to find Senegalese food in this city or in the US?
Mbaye: Some Senegalese staples are beignets, soupa konja, and domada. These are almost identical to Louisiana beignets, gumbo, and etouffee. Americans in the South are eating Senegalese-influenced food and a lot of them don’t know it. Of course, you will find actual Senegalese restaurants in places like New York, Philly and, Cincinnati because a lot of Senegalese immigrants have moved to those communities and establish their own restaurants for the community.
“Americans in the South are eating Senegalese-influenced food and a lot of them don’t know it.”
Tock: Aside from the food, do you incorporate any other Senegalese traditions at the pop-up?
Mbaye: One of my favorite courses is the Ataya tea welcome beverage. Ataya is jasmine tea served with mint. In Senegal, the pouring and serving of the tea is considered an art. You offer it to guests three times over the duration of the meal. I have incorporated the ceremonial art of the tea as the first welcoming course, and then I serve a hibiscus cocktail and a ginger beverage instead of Ataya 3 times.
Tock: Dakar Nola combines your love for two cities situated on the coast: Dakar and New Orleans. How do these places compare and how does geography play a role in your cooking?
Mbaye: Our ancestors from Senegal arrived here in New Orleans 400 years ago as slaves so the geographical connection starts there. They are both coastal cities with similar climates. There is similar access to seafood and crops like okra and tomatoes. Benachin, the one-pot style of cooking, is a staple in both cities.
Tock: You’ve worked at the legendary Commander’s Palace in addition to Michelin-starred restaurants across the country. What’s been your driving force?
Mbaye: To give west African food recognition on the same level that French, Italian, and other cuisines have been afforded in the culinary world.
Tock: There’s a month-long celebration of Juneteenth happening at the pop-up. Can you tell us why this is important to you? What chefs are you excited to collaborate with?
Mbaye: Juneteenth celebrates and acknowledges Black freedom in America, something that we are still striving for. The culinary world has a lot of Black stars who have never been acknowledged. This is a chance to highlight and celebrate chefs who I admire and who are cooking amazing food in New Orleans but are flying under the radar. I am looking forward to my experience with all five [Lashonda Cross, David Hargrove, Byron Bradley, Lloyd McKissick, and George Looez] because they are all unique in their own way.
“The culinary world has a lot of Black stars who have never been acknowledged.”
Tock: It’s been a challenging year for the industry, to say the least. What did you learn or what will you take away?
Mbaye: I think everyone that’s in the culinary industry struggled in some sort of way last year. At the same time, a lot of creativity was born. The one thing I learned is to cook simpler dishes and to connect with the community. I count my blessings and am grateful for the opportunity to still do what I love to do which is cooking.
Tock: What’s next for Dakar Nola? Will it be more than a pop-up?
Mbaye: I have always wanted to have my own restaurant. The pop-up transformed from curbside pickup to my dream of serving a tasting menu with top-notch service. We will continue doing pop-ups until we find a brick-and-mortar. We are excited about the future and encourage our guests to stay tuned.