Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The New Black Pearl of Paris

If you have not already visited Entrée to Black Paris™, WELCOME! Today marks the official launching of our blog!

Chef Rougui Dia granted Entrée to Black Paris™ an exclusive interview a few weeks ago. Read on to learn about her fascinating and inspiring story.

Cover of Rougui Dia Biography

When talking about "The Black Pearl" in relation to Paris, one thinks immediately of Josephine Baker - the African-American woman who took the city by storm in a theatrical revue and rose to stardom overnight in October 1926. In 2005, Paris discovered that it had a new "Black Pearl" who was rising to stardom as quickly as Baker did. But this time, the theater was a professional kitchen, and the woman was Franco-Senegalese instead of African-American. Her promotion to head chef at a premier restaurant in the posh 7th arrondissement caused nothing less than a media frenzy.

Rougui Dia is this 21st-century "Black Pearl." Born in Paris' 12th arrondissement, she is fourth in a family of seven siblings - two brothers and five sisters. Her parents hail from the village of N'Danno in northern Senegal, where they married and had their first two children. With the exception of two years in Senegal prior to beginning elementary school, and two months of summer vacation at age ten, she grew up in Paris and the nearby suburb of Neuilly-Plaisance. Her quiet demeanor belies the tenacity that sustained her efforts to attain her culinary credentials beginning at age 15, and propelled her to the number one spot in the kitchen at Le 144, the restaurant operated by the venerated caviar house Petrossian.

Petrossian Boutique and Restaurant
© Discover Paris!

A few weeks ago, Dia granted Discover Paris! an interview. At that time, I had not read her biography - Le Chef est une Femme (The Chef is a Woman; written in French when Dia was only thirty years old) - and did not know the details of her family life or the long, rocky road that she traveled to achieve her success. Many of my questions concerned the concept behind the dishes served at Petrossian, which are not Russian or Armenian as the uninitiated might guess from the name of the restaurant, but rather, a co-habitation of the finest French cuisine with various elements of Senegalese cuisine. Foie gras with hibiscus (the main ingredient of Senegal's national drink) and Le Poisson du Jour (fish of the day) with plantains are examples of such dishes. The idea is to titillate, but not shock, the palates of the restaurant's clientele with new taste sensations from Senegal.

Rougui Dia and Armen Petrossian
© Discover Paris!

Armen Petrossian, who travels the world in search of new items for the boutique downstairs at the corner of rue de l'Université and rue de Latour-Maubourg, works with Dia to establish the menu. He is the person who encouraged Dia to incorporate Senegalese ingredients into her dishes.  When I asked Dia if she collaborates with other chefs regarding ideas for dishes and menus, she responded that her main inspiration – apart from her interactions with Monsieur Petrossian – comes from her mother and her sisters.

I also asked Dia several questions about how being black and being a woman affected her ability to progress in the culinary field, which is almost exclusively the realm of the white French male. She responded that she decided early on that she would concentrate on the positive and keep herself focused on her goal – otherwise, she would end up with nothing while her detractors would have everything.  She did not focus so much on the race and gender aspects of the difficulties that she faced, but rather concentrated on overcoming these "supplemental" difficulties.  She further stated that barriers that she encountered only fueled her determination to succeed.  It was only in reading her biography that I learned of the numerous slights, rejections, and insults that she endured to obtain her certificates and to arrive where she is today.  I also learned that three of her siblings had to leave France to work in their chosen professions, so closed were the doors to the thresholds that they needed to cross to get even entry level positions in their fields.

Dia is a study in grace and poise. She is proud of her Senegalese origins, but also fully embraces France. She decided as a very young woman that she would embrace the people who encouraged and supported her rather than focus on the negativity and ignorance of her detractors, and she said that this attitude is what allowed her to succeed. She speaks very softly and has a gentle smile, but simultaneously exudes an air of determination and strength born of fierce struggle. She hopes that all the publicity generated by her success will inspire young women and French people of non-European origin that they too can find a path to success.


Each month, our Paris Insights newsletter presents the hidden jewels that comprise the "real" Paris – the people and places that are the true heart and soul of the city.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter announcements and to receive our free guide called "Practical Paris" today!

Entrée to Black Paris! is a Discover Paris! blog.

No comments: