The art of conversation
“Whatever the music I play, the instrument is always French cooking”
The chef Mory Sacko talks very, very fast, as though to cram in the explanations about the fascinating things that make up his world. And every sentence he speaks, like his cuisine, is straightforward, precise and well thought out. Sacko settled on the Left Bank in September 2020 to open Mosuke, his first restaurant. He had just been awarded his first Michelin star, but suddenly France went into its second lockdown and he had to adapt. So he served up Mosugo, a street-food establishment working flat out to offer takeout. The former Top Chef contender found the time to sit down, with a smile, to talk about his singular cuisine, his fast-paced days and views on the future of haute cuisine.
You had to close your restaurant two months after you opened it… How did the year 2020 go?
I was expecting another lockdown to be announced but I thought it would happen later. There was some frustration. In two months, you haven’t finished opening. At this point the team was just starting to feel at ease in the kitchen, like I was. We felt our momentum was kind of cut, but we were ready to react to anything that might happen. We opened Mosugo right away. I told myself that as long as we were working, we were preparing for the real reopening. Since then, everything’s been going well.
That’s kind of an understatement. How do you feel since getting your first Michelin star? What changed?
I was very surprised when the Michelin people called me. I’m very proud and I savored it, but I went straight back to work, because from a commercial standpoint, there is clearly a before and an after. We can’t do more than we’re doing now ! Plus we discovered a new clientele. Before, the restaurant mainly attracted customers who were aware that I’d been on Top Chef. Today, those who come to us are more informed about gastronomical matters.
Are you like those chefs who have been passionate about cuisine since childhood?
I don’t have any early memories of cooking! I didn’t cook when I was little; but I have a lot of memories of my family coming together at the table. My mother cooked typical West African meals. I came to cooking only much later.
You’re often associated with Thierry Marx. Among the people you met, who are the ones that made a major impact on your career as a chef?
Thierry Marx was able to make me understand what was at stake in the management and the role of the chef, but it’s Hans Zahner, my first chef at the Royal Monceau, who really brought out my passion for cuisine. After I left school, I spent almost two years working, but I wasn’t someone that people described as “thinking cuisine and sleeping cuisine.” When I started working with Zahner, he demanded a very high level from me. I had some catching up to do. It wasn’t easy. I had a hard time, but he kept pushing me. He made me see that if I was going to grow in this job, I had to be interested in what was happening with other chefs, to ask myself what cuisine really is, how to build a dish… By doing all that work, in one year I went from being a technician who completed his tasks and went home, to being a really passionate cook who gets to work early and goes home late to share and test recipes… Suddenly everything fell into place.
The term “African cuisine” often comes up in describing your influences. Can you explain what’s really behind this catchall description?
First it has to be said in the plural: “African cuisines.” In France, people are starting to be really familiar with North African cuisines, but there are huge differences when you go to sub-Saharan Africa. In West Africa, whose emblematic dishes we know (thieboudienne, mafe, yassa), the cuisine involves both land and sea: there’s a lot of fish on the coast, then meat dishes in sauce with long simmer times as you go into the interior of the country. The cuisine on the Horn of Africa is magnificent. It’s a crossroads of different worlds, on the route to India and with Ethiopian influences… Then there’s Central Africa. It’s got a thick jungle filled with leaves, and most of the leaves don’t have names, in fact. You can cook very interesting things with these “leaf vegetables,” as they are called. In South Africa, the influences are much more Western: there’s a lot of meat involved. The exception is Madagascar. Apart from being very mixed, it’s packed with native produce that has spurred the Malagasies to use their spices and ingredients very singularly. They’ve practically invented a new cuisine.
How do you explore these culinary horizons?
Since I can’t travel for now, I taste a lot of dishes in all kinds of places: I scour Ethiopian restaurants, I go check out Sudanese kitchens... That’s really how I take things in: I’m able to isolate culinary markers and then make them meet. I don’t want to offer one vision of this pluralist gastronomy. It’s exploratory research. I learn every day to recognize these types of cuisine, and my customers discover them at about the same time as I do.
How did you familiarize yourself with Japanese cuisine?
I had to make it happen by myself. In my career I tried to work in places whose DNA was Japanese. I started out with the Royal Monceau, which at the time housed the restaurant NOBU and its contemporary Japanese cuisine. That’s where I first came into contact with basic Japanese ingredients, such as miso and mirin. Then there was the Shangri-La, which was much more traditional French. That gave me the chance to consolidate my bases of French cuisine. At the Mandarin Oriental, I worked with Thierry Marx, who has a real appetite for Japan. A huge part of the brigade was Japanese. I took advantage of the opportunity to talk with them; I really wiped them out with all my questions. And it’s in sharing ideas that I built my identity. I’m really not elitist: I’m just as interested in Japanese home cooking as the sophisticated cuisine. Whether it’s ramen or instant noodles, or Japanese curry in the evening in front of the TV. In short, whether it’s everyday cooking or food from the street vendor, it’s all good! In any case that’s what I’ve been told – I’ve never been to Japan.
When did the idea come about to put Japanese and African cuisines together?
At the Mandarin Oriental, chef Marx gave me a lot of creative freedom. When I had to do sauces or marinades, I went naturally to Japanese condiments rather than typical French combinations. At the same time I started working the African angle a bit more. When I did a mafe, for example, I couldn’t keep myself from adding a bit of miso, because I had the impression something was missing. It happened naturally: along the paths I was taking to building a recipe, Japan often ended up in it.
You prefer the term “conversation” to “fusion.” Why?
I find the idea of fusion rather barbarian. The many culinary horizons of my cuisine build up with the menu, and they answer one another with each dish. I want the person dining to travel and enjoy all the cultures.
What is the share of each of these influences in the conversation?
The menu pretty much starts in Japan. Then we go for a little more warmth and generosity, and the African influences become more pronounced. The typically Japanese dish Onsen tamago is a perfect egg served with dashi, a fish broth. I sprinkle it with an African pepper to give it some heat and breadth. And inversely, I use a classic African recipe for yassa chicken, and I add Japanese notes to it, such as yuzu. To finish, the dessert is a parfait entre-deux. Then there is also France, of course, throughout the menu. These are the bases of my cuisine. Whatever the music I play, the instrument is French cooking.
Is your identity as a cook defined by this kind of hybridization, or is it purely an exercise in style?
These are my natural inspirations. Not gadgets. The basis of my cuisine is what best reflects my identity, and there are three identities. But I’m passionate about cuisine in general. I’m interested in many horizons. South America. Central America. Southeast Asia (which for me is perhaps the best cuisine)… I don’t work with these places in my restaurant but incursions into them are not excluded in the future. I tell myself it would be a shame not to make use of them.
The issues of diversity, inclusiveness and goodwill are all so much a part of public debate that they’re starting to seep into the very demanding world of gastronomy. What do you think of this?
I say that it’s a really good thing. That it’s none too early! I was made aware of these issues, if not actually bottle-fed on them. I had the luck of backing up chef Thierry Marx for two-and-a-half years. He was always up-to-date on these matters. That’s very rare in haute cuisine spheres. From the start he instilled in me the values of respect and of social skills, which he is very attached to and that are part and parcel of how he manages his team. He often says, “You have to be hard on facts and soft on people.” Like with children: you have to correct a cook who has made a mistake, but it’s never personal. In the kitchen the level of what is demanded and of commitment is extremely high. You obviously can’t agree to send something out that’s mediocre. But people must not be brutalized. It seems simple, but I can tell you that it’s far from being the norm. Fortunately I think there’s true generational renewal among chefs, and there is starting to be a consensus that people can’t do things they way they used to.
You’re part of this generational renewal. What will the cuisine world look like in the future?
We’re working to build a profession that’s more respectful of its staff. The faces that represent it will be much more multicultural and gendered. The 50 year-old, white-man chef with his red, white and blue collar will always exist. It’s necessary. He represents a certain vision of French gastronomy that must not be erased. But he will coexist with other faces and new models.
How did you make Mosuke into an eco-friendly place?
I work with the seasons and try to have the shortest routes possible, but my cuisine is very open to the world. From an ecological standpoint, for imports, it’s a bit of a lost cause in advance, for me. But I try to reduce things to a maximum. Everything I can find in France, I take. There are certain kinds of chilies, for example, that I used to import. Then I found a small grower who did his own hybrids of them. For produce and fresh vegetables, I work with a truck farmer who grows her own Japanese varieties in France, since we have more or less the same climate. So we have Japanese-variety vegetables, but that are French!
I will still need more time before being totally green, but I’m very attached to the work of sourcing. For everything I have to import (coffee, chocolate, I try to have a global societal take and to make a decision on a case-by-case basis: between an organic product where I don’t know if the grower makes a living from his profession and is able to expand his business, and a non-ecological product where I am sure that the grower is going to develop his activity and make a living from it, I tend to go for the second option. There are sectors, like cacao for example, where it’s especially important: the growers earn very little money to start with, and now work at a loss because of the market-regulated pricing that doesn’t take into account their lifestyle or the level of revenues they require. It’s not that I want to fight two battles, but I have to be attentive to this.
New templates, said to be more in tune to the times, have shaken up the institutional awards such as the Michelin star. In view of this kind of diversification, what does the future hold for these kinds of culinary awards?
I think we are going to see market segmentation. Today, even the fact of going out to a restaurant has changed. Before, you went out to eat when you were hungry and you looked for what was there around you. Now you go to a restaurant like you vote for a political party: “I like this chef, I like what he represents and the ideas he has.” Each channel will naturally highlight the chefs with which it feels in agreement. Likely the clientele will be divided up in the same way: a customer who reads Fooding® won’t be the same as the one who reads Michelin® or Fifty Best®. The so-called “bistronomic” restaurants, or gourmet bistros, often managed by younger and trendier chefs, won’t necessarily try to meet Michelin’s criteria. Yet it’s important that they have a guide they can address. But a restaurant that seeks out the Michelin guide and its clientele must also be able to be rewarded. Each of these models is legitimate and must have space to exist without it turning into a battle of one camp against another.
You still host the TV show Cuisine Ouverte on France 3. How did this project come about?
I wanted to do a show that made it possible to talk about cuisine while also going to meet growers. France TV gave me free rein. My only constraint was to respect a regional spectrum, so that was instantly pleasing to me. After the lockdown, I wanted space. The show allowed me to put my kitchen outside. I go to various terroirs, or regions, in search of growers. The exchange with them is important to me because they speak better about their products than I do. I learn things. It’s a constant learning process. Then a chef typical of the region shows us how he works with the produce concerned. To finish, I cook by adding influences of my own into the recipe. I have fun taking the dish to Africa, to Japan. We magnify the terroir, then we shake it up a little.
What projects do you have for 2021?
I can’t wait to be able to devote myself entirely to Mosuke as soon as we can reopen. And then our clientele would like for Mosugo to continue to exist. I love street food. I love to cook it, I love to eat it, so we are leaning towards the idea of making Mosugo that kind of a place. And then the star is positive pressure that stimulates my creativity. I want to concentrate on what I do best: my cuisine!
Interview: Marie Cheynel
Portraits and images: Jean Picon