To my community,

If you’re looking for me, you can find me at the market.  It’s my happy place, it’s home.  I’m not like most brown girls from Oakland.  My people are from Chicago, by way of Mississippi.  “Farm-to-table” was simply a way of life for my family growing up.  My grandmother had land in Mississippi where she grew corn, collard greens, butter beans, okra, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers.  Running through a corn field was what you did when you got bored.  My father sent me there every summer for many years, and carried all of those same traits passed down from his mother and developed a serious green thumb.  We grew up always with a backyard garden.  I got very familiar with garden tools, manure and the tricks of the trade.

But you want to know who I am.

I’ll tell you: I am the daughter of a cultural anthropologist who has an emphasis in West African percussion, so yes, I am the daughter of a drummer.  Rhythm, even complicated patterns of it come easily to me.  My father had the strongest love affair I’ve ever witnessed with West African culture and in turn shared that with me.  As a child he placed me in French classes in an attempt to create his own personal translator for his guest artists from Gambia, Senegal or Cote d’Ivoire.  It was pretty cute seeing this little kid standing in front of master dancers and drummers struggling to conjugate verbs.  Eventually, my father found love and married my step-mother, a traditional Gambian woman, who was in fact the first real life chef I had ever met.  She single-handedly taught me everything I know about West African cuisine.

At the time I didn’t know that I was a chef in training, I was just doing what all the children did…helped out.  I spent thousands of hours in the kitchen studying her movements, cementing her process in my mind and my body.  We shopped at the markets with a very discerning eye.  I was her commis chef.  I peeled the onions and carrots, pounded the peppercorns…  She would later pass away at the early age of 39 to stomach cancer, leaving me the honor of carrying on the family legacy.

When did I become a chef you ask?  I was always a chef.  I decided to really hone in on my craft in my early twenties.  In commercial kitchens I found something very different from the experience with my step-mother in our hearth.  Conditions for the women, people of color, and other individuals who were “at the bottom” were drastically different from the conditions afforded to men and caucasians.  Abusive, sexist and chauvinistic chefs were the status quo.  For a long time I thought that these circumstances were to be expected of the food industry; yet I still always maintained a positive spirit about this thing I loved to do, to cook.  I was dedicated to doing what I loved with just that, love.

I can go on and on about my resume but I rather get to the reason why you are reading this and more importantly why you will feel compelled to care.  You are reading this because I am telling my life story through my premiere culinary memoir: a cookbook that will detail stories, recipes and techniques from my experiences and travels in The Bay, France and West Africa.  You will care because it is a story of a resilient, brown, female chef who has surmounted incredible odds: abusive and sexist chefs, racial prejudice in kitchens and societal pressures to conform to the “norm” of popular culture.  You will care because I am a female chef who has illustrated courage and strength in the face of adversity.

This journey will come full circle for me as I work in French kitchens and fully solidify my bilingualism.  In West Africa I will have an opportunity to visit my family’s land and cook with the women in the village.  I will shop at the open air markets and build relationships with the farmers and vendors.

You will care because my story is your story, a story of #metoo, a story of heavy handed patriarchy in the face of optimistic feminism, a story of hopefulness, confidence and enthusiasm.  It is my hope that these words resonate with you.

 

Warmly,

Monifa Dayo