“You feel like helping him is a good investment,” said Lolis Eric Elie, the television and food writer from New Orleans who Mbaye considers his mentor. “I ain’t trying to make money off what he’s doing. I’m saying a good investment in that you think this is someone who will take whatever knowledge or resource you can share and put it to good use.”
The first chapter Mbaye always cites in his ‘biography’ ended before he was born. His mother, Khady Kante, ran one of New York’s few Senegalese restaurants, Touba Taif, from 1989 to ’91.
Robert Sietsema, the Village Voice’s longtime food critic who now writes for the website Eater, recalls eating thieb, Senegal’s national dish of fish, rice and vegetables, at Touba Taif. He also remembers the hostess was a Senegalese woman and a “very good cook” — almost certainly Mbaye’s mother.
“At the time, Senegalese restaurants were not licensed establishments, they were set up in people’s houses or in hotel rooms,” Sietsema said. “Touba Taif was one of those secret restaurants, located on the ground floor of a brownstone in Harlem.”
When he was six, Mbaye’s world changed. His parents sent him and an older brother, Cheick, to several boarding schools in Senegal where the only subject was the Quran.
At the first school, his brother Cheick remembers that boys would be hit or forced to exercise as motivation. Mbaye says he was not given breakfast or lunch for three months, a punishment for memorizing verses too slowly.