Dakar NOLA’s head chef celebrates James Beard Foundation Award with fireside Juneteenth cookout

Dakar NOLA’s head chef celebrates James Beard Foundation Award with fireside Juneteenth cookout

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – If you ask the James Beard Foundation, Dakar NOLA is the nation’s Best New Restaurant.

Head Chef Serigne Mbaye took the accolade home last week at the Foundation’s award ceremony in Chicago.

“Celebration does not happen if food is not present,” Mbaye told Fox 8 while he danced around open flames and lifted the lids of scorching hot cast-iron pots with jollof rice plumping inside.

Mbaye says there wasn’t much time to celebrate Dakar NOLA’s achievement because he immediately started planning Sunday’s Juneteenth Afro Freedom Afro Feast tasting event.

The setting was City Park’s Grow Dat Youth Farm near Pan-American Stadium.

“Grateful, living on Cloud 9,” Mbaye said. “It hasn’t sank in yet, because I’ve just been busy.”

Food surrounded Mbaye from an early age. He spent his early days in his mother’s New York City restaurant, transporting customers in Harlem to West Africa with each bite.

But at age 5, Mbaye was sent to boarding school in Senegal, where he clung to food to get through the tough times away from family.

It lit a fire that is still burning in Chef Mbaye today.

“He’s one of the hardest-working chefs I know,” said Chef Nina Compton.

Compton and Mbaye go back several years. When she isn’t feeding downtown hotel guests at Compere Lapin on Tchoupitoulas Street or Bywater locals at BABs on Chartres Street, she sings Mbaye’s praises.

“He’s very hungry and he wants to learn,” said Compton. “He asks a lot of questions and I think that is the beginning, where he’s very humble and he’s not afraid to ask for help. And I think that is what is going to separate him from everyone else.”

At the farm, Compton joined a host of prominent New Orleans chefs showcasing their ancestry and culinary talents with food for the soul.

“Hot fire chicken with pickled mango and some B and B pickles,” Chef Compton described. “The idea is to just have something very spicy. It is summertime and it’s really about having that beautiful, glazed chicken.”

Compton hails from the island of St. Lucia, flaunting her Caribbean heritage with each plated appetizer.

“It’s very important to have representation of all these different cultures coming together to celebrate something like Juneteenth,” said Mbaye. “Afro Freedom Afro Feast. I think the name of the event explains it all.”

To Chef Mbaye, Juneteenth is the definition of celebration. It’s honored annually, officially on June 19, to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people after the end of the Civil War.

“I think it’s bringing a sense of pride that we have in New Orleans, because we have a lot of African influence,” said Compton. ‘This is really a celebration of freedom.”

With each possibly unfamiliar bite came a reminder that where there is good food and good people, there is always a reason to raise a glass.

Another local gem took one of this year’s James Beard Foundation’s top awards. At the corner of St. Louis and Rampart Streets, Jewel of the South was named the nation’s Outstanding Bar.

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