In 2016 chef and restaurateur Pierre Thiam accompanied Anthony Bourdain on an episode of Parts Unknown in his native Senegal. Together they ate fresh seafood on the beach, talked about the country’s rising middle class, and had dinner at the home of Thiam’s aunt. Thiam spoke with Explore Parts Unknown’s Emily Marinoff about the trip and his delight to see that Bourdain “had this deep hunger for learning other cultures.”
Emily Marinoff: How did Bourdain approach you about going to Senegal?
Pierre Thiam: I had written my second cookbook [Senegal] and he wanted to go to Senegal after reading the book, so he reached out. The cookbook became the itinerary for the trip.
Marinoff: What was it like filming with Bourdain in your native Senegal?
Thiam: It was really an awesome time. Tony was a very real person. When he came to Senegal, the places he wanted to visit were not what I was expecting. He didn’t shy away from politics. He insisted on discussing the fact that Senegal is a majority-Muslim country, because Dakar was a bit of a shock for him—it wasn’t what you would expect from a Muslim country. Many women were dressed in a very modern way, but there were also women who were covered, so he wanted to speak with [women who chose to wear the veil and those who did not] and hear how they felt. Tony tried to give them a voice. That wasn’t what you would expect from a food show, but I got that Tony wanted to portray the culture in all its aspects.
Marinoff: Do you think the episode changed US perceptions of Senegal?
Thiam: Absolutely, yes, and that shows just the impact of his voice and the show. Many Senegalese—and non-Senegalese—people reached out to me [after it aired] and were so very proud of the way their culture and their country [were] portrayed. Other people said Bourdain changed the vision of Africa for a lot of people. Tony was able to highlight people’s lives and the beauty of the country, the beauty of the culture, the beauty of the food—all of it.
Marinoff: What were some of the most memorable moments from shooting the episode?
Thiam: One was just that Tony was ready to eat anything. He would go to street food, the type you would never see a Westerner eating. That’s what Tony wanted to eat and what he ended up loving the best. He tried the best national dishes in Senegal, but he said his most memorable one was this bean sandwich from one mama on the street corner in Saint-Louis, in northern Senegal.
Just taking him to my house, to my family, too. Sitting down with him on the straw mat to eat the way we traditionally do, around a bowl. In our tradition we see it as proof of love and trust with everyone seated around you. We were in my family’s house, and my aunt cooked this beautiful dish, and Tony wanted to eat it the traditional way, showing that he respected this way of eating.
Marinoff: How did your family react to meeting Tony?
Thiam: They loved it. They said that he wasn’t just someone who came and was acting and shooting a movie. They knew that he was real. They all shed a tear when he died—it was incomprehensible to them that someone so beautiful would take his own life. He really marked them, and he marked me just by his presence, his aura, his respect for the culture and the moment and the sharing. He asked very good questions, and my aunt particularly saw that he was a special guy. She thanked me for bringing him over.
Marinoff: Did you learn anything new about your country by going with Tony and seeing it through his eyes?
Thiam: Absolutely. I always loved my country, but I think Tony was able to see a beauty that we can’t see. He was showing the beauty in things that we don’t particularly find beautiful. [Some might just see] poverty, that it’s an undeveloped country. He showed the intelligence of the people and saw beauty in the poorest corners of Dakar.
My countrymen reached out to me to say they were very grateful for what he said. Hundreds of people I didn’t even know reached out to me to thank me, but they were really thanking Tony for having done such a beautiful show. On social media in Senegal, there was not one single negative thing to say about the episode.
Tony was special, you know? There are just some people who come through life to leave a message. Tony was on a mission.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.