Loïc Dablé of Côte d'Ivoire – Where no one ever expected me to be

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Imagine you were born in France, from Ivorian parents. Imagine you grew up in the suburbs, and as a teenager you became what one can call "delinquent". Imagine that at age 15, you are forced to choose between two life paths: school or prison. The answer seems obvious, but would it be so obvious to a teenager who only knows how to survive in those ghettos demonised by the right-wing politicians?

Today, I am inspired by Loïc Dablé, a Franco-Ivorian young man born in France in 1985. Like many migrants, his parents ended-up electing residence in Seine-Saint-Denis, this multi-ethnic department of France that is too often in the news for all the wrong reasons.

He describes his childhood as uneventful. His teenage years were the exact opposite: Loïc turned almost overnight into an unruly teenager, always hanging out with shady characters, to his mother’s despair. At the time she was a single mom, raising her three kids alone and she didn’t quite know what to do with her eldest son.

There is a thin line between bad company and bad acts, and Loïc seemed more than happy to cross it. He found himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion, for what he describes today as "stupid things".

As a teenager, he got away with a few warnings, but nothing more. Until one day, a magistrate who was reviewing his case and his unimpressive rap sheet, lost patience with him and gave him an ultimatum:

"Young man, either you agree to take do a training or I put you in jail."

Something told the 15 years old that the judge was not kidding. Loïc knew that he was fast approaching the age of 16, and after that, justice would be less lenient with him.

To his mother’s relief, he agreed to go for training. When asked if he was interested in any field, he probably surprised those who could only see him as a "delinquent" teenager. Loïc said he wanted to learn how to cook! When asked why, he laconically answered that he "liked it".

You might thing that this was it, that he was finally on the right track. Not quite! It is one thing to love cooking, it is another thing for a teenager to accept the discipline required. Three months later, he was dismissed from the school for his unwillingness to abide to the school’s code of conduct.

Back to the judge, same ultimatum, same decision to go back to school, same trade.

He was sent to another place: the EPMT in Paris. The EPMT is a school offering young people vocational training in hotel and restaurants’ jobs.

It is during an internship at l'Auberge Bressane that he will meet his first mentor, Tanguy Le Gall.

The experienced Chef took him under his wings and showed him all the tricks of the trade. Le Gall was patient but rigorous.

The young man went through a complete transformation. What was just a hobby became his passion! Kitchens and cooking gradually became the centre of his universe. It was a 180 degree turn from where he was when he started at EPMT!

"Cooking was for me a way to communicate, to express my emotions. I considered myself a bit like a rapper, you’d see me writing recipes on the subway. Transforming a food from A to Z is like an artistic work, that's what I like about it. "

He completely immersed himself in the training and even accepted to abide by the "almost military" discipline and the long days required. Surprisingly, the restaurant rush hours were most exciting for a teenager looking for some adrenaline rush.

His time at EPMT was not just an eye opener on the world of restaurants, it was an eye opener on the world, period. Believe it or not, all he knew till them was his life in the suburbs. With the EPMT, he discovered that there was a whole world beyond.

The restaurant where he did his internship was in one of Paris upscale neighbourhoods, Les Invalides, an area where people frowned when they saw his outfits, his tattoos, his piercings and his “hip-hop” demeanour.

" No one noticed me when I jumped on the subway at Saint-Denis, with my Lacoste tracksuit, my messenger bag, my cap, and. But when I got off at the Invalides, everyone looked at me like I was an alien" he recalls with a smile.

The young man was too much into his trade to allow anything or anyone deter him from pursuing his newfound dream. He quickly mastered everything there was to know about the industry, the ingredients, how to prepare the various meals, how to serve a table in a high-end restaurant, how to choose a win.

The restaurant owners were so impressed with him, they offered him a job when he graduated! A job with benefits: an apartment in the 16th arrondissement and a scooter so he wouldn’t have to travel so far just to come to work!

He wasn’t even 20 years old! That same world that once only opened to him the doors of the courthouses – some two years ago – was suddenly offering him the doors of the city! All this thanks to his hard work and his talent!

You might think that this is finally the happy ever ending of this usual journey? Not yet.

Despite this spectacular advance in his life and after the euphoria of the early days, Loïc felt a bit out of place this world. And it wasn’t because of his origin, after all he was as French as everyone else around him.

It was something else more subtle, a sort of a malaise. Loïc had trouble finding his bearings, he felt as though he was caught in between two completely different worlds. A sort of “gastronomic identity crisis”, I you will. His new world seemed to have no place for the foods he was used to growing up, the African home-made cooking, so rich and diverse.

"The more I was advancing in the job, the more frustrated I felt. Cooking is a very personal thing. I'm from a Métis culture, born in France from Ivorian parents. By working only with ‘French’ products, I felt as though I was renouncing to who I was. Also, when I proposed African products in restaurants, I was told that they would not be ‘fine’ enough. But any product, if it is properly prepared, can become fine. Even a simple banana. "

On a whim, he decided to resign from his job and went to look what else was out there for him. At that time, the young man had only known Africa from the confines of his French diaspora community, and he yearned to go to Africa in search of its roots.

This dream had to wait a little longer. It will not be in Africa but in London that he will realize that what he was looking for was already in him, it was enough to look at things differently.

Unlike Paris, some British restaurants offered African dishes, although none of their chefs were Africans. Instead of rejoicing, this view of African cuisine seen by non-Africans completely depressed!

"I'm African and we are used to good food, but I never really saw that before in a restaurant and prepared by white people. It was like a slap in the face. I was very sad, to think that I had to come all the way to London to see my African cuisine but showcased by white people. I thought it was not normal. "

From that moment, the young man became determined to change the situation. If he wanted the world to accept that African cuisine had as much its place on the menus of great restaurants as French or Italian cuisine, he had to do it himself!

His new Leitmotiv: "to make African cuisine sexy", so that she too will one day find herself on a par with Western cuisines. And one of the most ambitious goals: to change how Africans see their own cooking.

"We tend to despise our own recipes, to despise our own products. For example, we think that tomatoes are good only for broths. We think that people will not necessarily appreciate our okra sauce. It's something you eat in the village, but not necessarily on a restaurant table. We must start thinking in reverse. We must see how today, our okra, our favourite soup, our fumbwa, we can give a new take on all these recipes so we can offer them anew to our customers, the restaurant customers or hotel guests. "

Back in Paris, Loïc went back to work in high end restaurants, bent on continuing his learning and master the processes of the French cuisine so he can translate them in the African gastronomy.

His resume gradually expanded, with jobs in the most exclusive restaurants of Paris and the Riviera: the Apicius, George V palace, Le Meurice, El Chiringuito, and others,

His determination paid off: he won his first position as a Chef at La Timbale, a restaurant in the 18th arrondissement of Paris before being offered the reins of the restaurant Africasa.

He jumped on the opportunity to offer a full menu of Afro-fusion dishes! The launch was highly mediatised, with a guest list including reporters and renowned food columnists

His approach? Well, in simple terms, Loïc takes African classics and recreates them using different ingredients. His secret weapon: spices from all over the continent. And no, no Maggi cube in Chef Loïc Dablé's kitchen!

If the taste of his dishes is familiar, his oh so chic presentation is a real revolution in itself, especially for Africans.

"Innovation is about looking at Swaziland food, looking at Zambia food, Zimbabwe food, for example, and saying: what can we do to highlight this cuisine that people don't necessarily know? Innovation is important. But next to innovation, we must add some other important words, such as 'authenticity'. The goal is not to denature our cuisine. Absolutely not. It's really about bringing it to the next level, putting it in a beautiful showcase she can shine under the spotlights."

His unusual menu did just that: put this young man from disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the spotlight! The press was seduced by his confidence and his audacity to impose his imprint, and his "bad boy" looks, as he is often described.

In 2013, Chef Loïc Dablé will temporarily leave the kitchen to put a judge's apron on the show 'Star Chef' alongside Chef Christian Abegan of Cameroon. It will be this show shot in Gabon that will bring Loïc on the land of his ancestors for the first time and awaken in him a desire to one day return to settle there.

The same year, the Grand Journal, the flagship show of Canal +, invited him to cook his afro-fusion dishes on the TV set, before a live audience. France was definitely conquered!

Loïc Dablé starts a consulting company and begins to obtain contracts with large hotel groups in Africa, where he trains staff to reclaim their ancestors' cuisine.

"We start from an observation that many African tables offer Western cuisine of twenty, thirty years, or sometimes even sixty years, and their cooks can not necessarily express their know-how. I always find it very unfortunate to arrive in some hotels and be offered a sole meunière or a blanquette de veau. I find it always a shame because, first of all because it is often poorly prepared, with the wrong products, and because it does not correspond to the local culture. Me, when I go to Gabon, I want to taste a local broth. When I arrive in Senegal, I want to taste a real thieb, not a fake thieb , I want to taste a real thieb. "

Between his television and radio appearance, the writing of columns in various magazines, the constant traveling from one African capital to another, Loïc still managed to find the time to write and publish a cookbook, one year before reaching his thirties! Kudos! "Bad boy" oblige, he launched his book online with rap music paying in the background! The proud child of the suburbs!

In 2015, the Musée Dapper, a private Parisian museum created in 1986 and largely dedicated to African art, invited him to open a chic restaurant in its historic walls. A beautiful gift for his thirty years birthday!

The young man went the whole nine yards , with an extraordinary attention to detail, to make sure nothing would compromise his contemporary vision of African cuisine.

It's a real success! Café Dapper Loïc Dablé is quickly becoming a must for lovers of futuristic African cuisine. The Dapper's restaurant was unfortunately to close when the famous museum closed in 2017.

Instead of looking for another cuisine gig, Loïc decided to pursue of helping other disadvantaged young people to find their way in the world. And where else if not in Africa? Since his stint as a judge on Star Chef, Loïc has become a role model for young people from the continent.

"I get a lot of messages from young people that my journey inspires", he says, getting emotional.

Together with his life partner Karmelle, he created the Karmelle & Loïc Dablé Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims at combating youth and women's unemployment and illicit migration. Through pan-African cuisine!

"I want to give back what I was given when I was 15".

Loïc decided to start with Côte d'Ivoire, of which he has since become a citizen. The Chef opened in Abidjan a restaurant like no other: Migrations. Not only does Migrations offer gourmet dinners, but it is also a social project aimed at reintegrating vulnerable people, including women and migrants.

So, don't be surprised if you see this Bad Boy turned Chef arrive in your city to revolutionize the way you see your traditional dishes. And you, the saka saka, bugari, tô, ndolé, injera, ablo, jolof, salted fish, ndagara, and others, consider yourself warned: Afro fusion is coming your way!

Right your Legacy, Loïc. And thank you for shuttering some of the stereotypes about children from the suburbs and children from African descent.

We are together.

Right your Legacy, Loïc. And thank you for shuttering some of the stereotypes about children from the suburbs and children from African descent.

We are together.

Contributor

Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi