“Black Girl in Paris” author, Kiratiana Freelon, reviews the coveted cuisine of Rhougui Dia, Paris’s black, female head chef.
8 bd La Tour-Maubourg, 7th
Tel: 01 44 11 32 32
Metro: La Tour-Maubourg
Hours: Mon-Sat noon-2:30pm, 8pm-10:45pm
Cost: Lunch €35, dinner €80 and up
The Queen of Parisian Cuisine
There are more than 2000 French restaurants in Paris. Of the 400 that the Michelin guide found worthy of a listing, only 77 received one of their coveted stars. And of those starred restaurants, only one has a black, female head chef: Le Petrossian 144’s Rhougui Dia.
Located right off the Les Invalides in the trés tony seventh arrondissement, Le Petrossian is best known for the fine Beluga caviar and smoked salmon it has sold since 1920. Owner Alex Petrossian entered the world of fine dining in 1999, opening a French contemporary restaurant upstairs. Le 144, as it is commonly known, quickly became popular for its seafood entrees and creative deserts.
So when the head chef position opened in 2005, Alex wanted someone who could maintain the high standards of the restaurant, but bring a new energy and creativity to its menu. He found that person right in the restaurant’s kitchen: Rhougui Dia, a French woman of Senegalese descent who was already second chef.
“At the beginning we asked Rhougui to think about taking this position,” Alex explained. “We knew it would be challenge because she is a woman and she’s in a world of men.”
Dia also reached the top as an outsider, with no familial ties to the good-ole-boys network of high-end dining and cooking. When asked how she, a 30-year-old woman, rose to such a prestigious position so quickly, responded simply, “I didn’t have any fear to work.”
Dia completed her first cooking internship at the age of 15. By the age of 21, she was working at Chez Jean in the 9th arrondissement. She quickly rose through the glittering echelons of Parisian cuisine, eventually landing the prestigious job at Le Petrossian 144, where she worked for five years before being offered the head chef position.
Despite her hefty title, Rhougui Dia doesn’t have the air of a head chef. She’s humble, unwilling to boast about herself. Her youthful face shows no wear from the hectic schedule of running a restaurant. The baggy white chef outfit hides her slim figure, a gift from her Senegalese Peul genes.
Over the course of a year, Dia worked with the Petrossian staff and owners to create her dishes for a new menu. Rather than forcing her to suppress her ethnic background, the Petrossian management encouraged her to embrace it along with other cultures. She serves a “yagouline lamb,” cooked for seven hours with plantains; monkfish flavored with mahaleb, a Middle Eastern spice; and for dessert, a mango tart. Her most popular dish is Iranian shrimp, steamed with citronella.
For aspiring chefs she offers the following advice: “One must never give up. Surround yourself with the best people who will support you, teach you and give you a ray of light.”
Will Rhougui open her own restaurant in the future? Not soon, since she feels she still has much to learn. But as the French say, “Il faut jeter à l’eau.”