In The Hands Of A Chef
When the chef comes out of the kitchen to show you why he prefers sweet potatoes from Israel to those from Brazil, you know you’ve met someone whose heart is in his food. No white jacket, no tall hat. Just a love of great ingredients, subtle spices, and the people who come to him to be fed.
Craving spicy food and a drive in the sunny autumn countryside, we trekked some 80 kilometers, about 50 miles, to Le Vigan. I’d stumbled upon this reference to Sirima Bamassé, a chef from Burkina Faso, producing soul-satisfying food in the Cévennes foothill town better known for its reinettes de Vigan apples than its African cuisine. We had to have some.
Alas, as we learned when we arrived, one is supposed to order African food at least a day in advance. Otherwise the menu consists of delicious-sounding French dishes that would tempt any diner, except those seeking the heat and exoticism of faraway places. I asked whether, if we just put ourselves in his hands, he would be so kind as to make us the most African meal possible under the circumstances, and his already warm smile grew brighter.
He started us with a gorgeous salad of lightly spicy and crispy shrimp, in a salad with a perfect balance of ginger, lime, and chile. That, and a little dish of a “be very careful with this, only Africans can really eat it” hot sauce set our tastebuds to dancing. For the record, Americans can eat it too, and are very willing and happy to do so.
Then we had a beautiful dish, centered on lush and velvety beef tongue, with fried sweet potatoes and plantain, and for the “little touch of the Cévennes” a ragout of forest mushrooms, chestnuts, and greens. A spoonful of a spicy and salty mix, whose name sounded like quinquinquin, came alongside, and we sprinkled it and the “for Africans only” hot sauce liberally on our plates until our insides were all aglow, just as we’d wanted them to be. If anybody knows about Burkinabé cuisine and knows the real name, and even better, the recipe, for that spice mix, please do tell!
We followed that with a trio of crème brulées to share, pistachio, cardamom, and chicory, the last being my personal favorite. It was one of our best restaurant meals ever in France, not to mention that the chef and his partner, who guards the front of the house, are the nicest people imagineable.
After he’d come to our table to show us the sweet potatoes, and even the beef from the cooler, to make a point about using the best ingredients possible, I asked her “Is he always like that, so generous?” “Bien sûr, c’est un Africain,” she said. “Of course, he’s African.” And she went on to say “If an African has nothing but a banana, he’ll give you half.”
That’s just what we need in this world, and we’ll be going back for more as soon as we can. You’re probably thinking that 80 kilometers is a long way to go for lunch, but then, you haven’t tasted this beautiful food. Go, if you can, and call ahead, ask for Burkinabé food, and imagine an Africa where everyone has all the bananas they need.