Fonio: A New ‘It’ Grain That Could Unseat Quinoa
Article by Brooke Henderson – Fortune Magazine
Aspen Chef, Mawa McQueen of Mawa’s Kitchen and The Crepe Shack, has been a pioneering chef when it comes to the introduction of fonio, an up and coming grain from West Africa. While most American chefs had no experience with fonio, Chef Mawa was familiar with it from her childhood.
While on a walk in 2010 around Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, Teverow saw a man cooking a whole animal on the sidewalk and had one overriding thought: I have to go talk to him.
It was Pierre Thiam, one of the world’s leading West African chefs.
“It was a lamb, and I was humiliated because I assumed it was a baby pig,” Teverow told Fortune….But a partnership wasn’t born until Teverow read an article about Thiam’s dream: creating economic opportunity for West African farming communities by sharing their food with the world, including the ancient grain fonio, pronounced “phone-yo.”
Five years after their sidewalk meeting in 2010, the pair launched their company, aptly named Yolélé.
Their signature product—a West African grain called fonio—is now sold nationally in Whole Foods and found in restaurants across the country.
“When quinoa came across my desk, I thought, Well, here’s a grain. We sell plenty of grains. Absolutely. Let’s do it,” Teverow recalled. “I was surprised when it started selling really well from the beginning.”
But even he could not have predicted the fact that quinoa has become a virtual staple, now found everywhere from L.A. grain bowls to Midwestern grocery stores.
The same appeal quinoa had is present in fonio: It’s healthy and novel, and it gives foodies a chance to get more creative. Teverow said the process of getting it to the market is also not so different. To reach consumers, fonio needed to be placed not only into cutting-edge stores but also onto cutting-edge menus to raise awareness. And in that sense, the food entrepreneur learned a major lesson from quinoa.
Bellemare says it’s hard to determine if fonio will be the next quinoa—but it really will depend on whether chefs and foodies embrace it.
“We went into restaurants with a bag of fonio and asked to talk with the chef. After Whole Foods, restaurants were really our first customers,” Teverow says.
“Most people find it forbidding to encounter an ingredient that they’ve never cooked before, but if a great chef cooks it for them and it gets buzz, it becomes cool,” he says.
When Thiam approached Mawa McQueen, a restaurant owner in Aspen, about incorporating fonio into her menu, the memories came back. “I show it to my brother. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. We used to hate this.’ It was like the poor man food,” McQueen says, laughing. “But it has so many good things for your health, I said, you know what? I’m going to introduce this in Aspen.”
It also helped that McQueen was sick and tired of quinoa. Aspen is the worst place to introduce anything ethnic, she says, but because people knew her she was able to take the risk. Anything on her menu with quinoa was replaced with fonio, much more gentle on the stomach and easier to digest, she says.
The first week, the guests complained.
“People would ask, ‘Can I have quinoa?’ I would go out and say, ‘You eat this,’” McQueen says, laughing.
Now, no one asks for quinoa at all. Some guests even stop by Mawa’s Kitchen to buy fonio to cook themselves. She offers a gluten-free pancake, porridge, and a fonio and arugula salad, and the only time guests complain now is if the fonio runs out.