The Bravo Beat: Giving Cambridge, MA, students a taste of Senegal

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Director of Communications

Walk into any Bon Appétit kitchen, and you’ll find highly skilled, creative people with really interesting life stories. Many of our 10,000-plus employees have been with us for years, working their way up the ladder from hourly service personnel to head of the kitchen and even to executive staff. Their diverse backgrounds flavor our menus and our company culture.

IMG_0752-1 In this new Bravo Beat series for the Bon Appétit blog — named for our almost-quartlery company newsletter — we’ll spotlight some of our star staff, starting with Hamidou Cisse (right), Bon Appétit sous chef at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.

Born in Dakar, Senegal, the soft-spoken, genial Hamidou came to the United States in 1992 by way of Germany. While working as a dishwasher at a couple of Boston-area restaurants, he began “hanging out with chefs” and started cooking. In 2007, he stuck his head in the back door of Bon Appétit’s kitchen at Lesley to ask if they had any jobs.

“We need someone to make soup,” said then-Executive Chef Brian Dagnall.

“I can do that,” said Hamidou. “I’m good on soup — I can make the best clam chowder.”

He was hired as an hourly cook. Slowly, he began cooking not just New England staples, but Senegalese and other West African dishes as well, such as yassa (chicken with lemon sauce, olives and a lot of onions with white rice), and mafé (tomato stew with potatoes, carrots, peanuts, rice, and sometimes okra).

They have proven to be very popular. “Students come to the office to tell me how much they like my food,” Hamidou says proudly. It’s become a tradition that once a month, the café features an African entrée made by Hamidou.

In 2010 he was promoted to salaried sous chef. Funnily enough, in Senegal, cooking is traditionally women’s turf — men aren’t even allowed in the kitchen, Hamidou says. So how did he learn to make these dishes? Easy, he laughs: “I just went online and found recipes, and practiced until it tasted right to me!”