“Chefs have always been ambassadors for the gastronomy of their region”

June 18, 2024

In an exclusive interview with the SIAL newsroom, Giorgiana Viou, a Michelin-starred chef of Beninese origin, shares her thoughts on the evolution of African cuisine in the face of globalisation.

In your opinion, is Africa losing its traditional food culture to westernisation and standardisation?
It’s true that with globalisation, McDonalds and brasseries, to give just two examples, are everywhere, but traditions are still very much alive and well, they have a thick skin. I don’t think we should confuse using African ingredients or recipes in Western cuisine with westernising African dishes, I think we need to be vigilant on this point.
It’s up to us Africans in the diaspora or living in black Africa to promote our traditional recipes without distorting them. As in Le Gout de Cotonou, Ma Cuisine du Bénin and many other works. In addition to books, there are quite a few commercial initiatives, such as traditional cooked dishes, which are on the increase…

The Maghreb has succeeded: why not the others? The countries of this region of Africa have not escaped globalisation etc., but their traditions have been preserved in both street food and luxury establishments. And abroad it’s a gastronomy that has its place.

Revisiting is all very well, but first you have to visit. In this respect, there are still countries where a census is imperative. As nationals of one African country or another, we often have no idea of the culinary wealth of our homeland. It’s because we’re used to having very little written material, but this is changing…

Finally, an anecdote: I have a friend who’s a chef from the Jura who recently cooked a Malian steamed bread called Widjila for a picnic for 350 people, which he accompanied with Dja (a typical Beninese tomato fry). I’d say that Westerners are seizing on African food culture and I like that.

How are new distribution methods and consumer habits influencing African cuisine?
Ready-made meals is a way of consuming that’s gaining ground these days. In my opinion, this method of distribution is an opportunity because it reaches as many people as possible. Some of them are quite well done. You can buy Mafé or Yassa at Picard, in supermarkets and so on.

When it comes to eating habits, from one country to another, from one region to another, they differ and evolve, and cooks have always been able to adapt and find solutions. There is also the occasional desire to take a speciality from one’s adopted country and create a recipe using a product that is emblematic of one’s country of origin. For example, Pierre Siewe, a Franco-Cameroonian chef, makes an ice cream with Penja pepper that is just as popular with French customers as when he makes it in Cameroon.

How is African cuisine reinventing itself, drawing inspiration from both local and foreign sources? Can you give us some examples of this reinvention in your own culinary creations?
Maybe we can avoid using the term “African cuisine”? As far as I know, there are many different types of African cuisine: Nigerian, Ethiopian, Turkish, Kenyan, Beninese, Togolese, Angolan, etc. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all African. For my part, it’s mainly Beninese cuisine that inspires me when I want to make a dish with an African influence. Make a proper peanut sauce and instead of meat, fish or aubergine, add some porcini mushrooms, a few cubes of flower vinegar jelly, a bit of cacao nibs. Make a Gari Foto with raw and cooked vegetables and fruit in the spirit of a garden… Many African cuisines are not in the process of reinventing themselves… I think they’re already showing themselves. They are daring, coming out of the shadows… Some African chefs (diaspora or local) are of course going to mix Western techniques with traditional African ones to design their dishes… to push the cursor higher. Is this what reinventing is all about?

What role do chefs like you play in preserving and promoting African food culture?
A very important role, I think. We have different establishments. I run a French restaurant in the south of France. Even if I integrate a few ingredients here and there, it’s not a Beninese restaurant. One day, perhaps, and then the question will arise as to whether we should do everything traditional or reinvent the wheel. In the meantime, there are conferences, books as I said, and sometimes demonstrations… Chefs have always been ambassadors for the gastronomy of their region. Where they live or where they come from.

How do you see African cuisine evolving over the next few years?
Many dishes from African cuisines, but above all many of the techniques and ingredients used in Africa, are the future.

Can you tell us about your culinary career and how you became Africa’s first Michelin-starred chef?
I think that’s true in France, but in the rest of the world I’m the first from Benin. We often hear that Michelin doesn’t visit enough women… so I hope that in a few years’ time, more of the 700 starred restaurants (on average in France) will be women (39 today, counting the “wives of”) and black, brown, green or red even better…

The other guide, Gault et Millau, lists more from memory… which means that all this is well on the way… I would have liked the star to have been awarded to a restaurant serving sub-Saharan African cuisine, but who knows, it will come.

In the meantime, it’s already wonderful, isn’t it?
I migrated to France to study at La Sorbonne Nouvelle. I had to rethink my plans when my eldest son arrived.

When I was thinking about another passion that I could make my profession, cooking was an obvious choice. After a divorce and two more children, I had to make my own way as best I could self-taught. 15 years after starting this professional conversion, I’ve achieved much more than I ever imagined, but above all I’ve never given up, because the path is strewn with many pitfalls.

I’m lucky enough to know where I’ve come from and to have some idea of where I’m going… in between, it’s been a lot of hard work.

Image credit: Maki Manoukian

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