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Serving a taste of Senegal

Marie-Claude Mendy brings African cuisine — and art and hospitality — to Teranga in Boston’s South End

By Natalie Southwick
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2010

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It’s 2 p.m. on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and Marie-Claude Mendy is not supposed to be working. At either of her full-time jobs.

Sunday is her day of rest from what can only be described as a frenetic schedule, but here she is, eating a lunch of grilled chicken simmered with onions at the bar of Teranga, the Senegalese restaurant she opened in the South End just over a year ago. An elegant 36-year-old with short hair and a dazzling smile, who speaks five languages, Mendy runs the restaurant while maintaining a job at a French asset-management company. Four days a week at 5:30 p.m., she takes the Silver Line from her Financial District office to the South End, arriving in time to prepare her signature dishes, such as the caramelized onion sauce served with several entrees.

“I’ve been called crazy before,’’ Mendy says, laughing. “In all honesty, I just like to try stuff. I just want to enjoy life and make the most out of it. When you live your passion, anything is possible.’’

A few decades ago, the idea of a successful African restaurant not only opening in Boston, but also thriving, might have seemed implausible, but today Mendy is running a genuine hot spot with a menu spanning the globe from France to Senegal to Vietnam.

Born to a family of entrepreneurs in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on the coast of West Africa, Mendy credits her parents for encouraging her endeavors. “The spread of entrepreneurship is so in me that I always knew that I would branch out on my own,’’ she says. Both of her parents had side businesses in addition to their regular jobs, and Mendy and her five siblings, who all live in France, are following that path. “I grew up seeing that, so it was very easy for me to do,’’ she says, although she acknowledges that “easy’’ isn’t the best description for what she’s doing right now.

Her mother is also responsible for her interest in food, teaching her to bake by age 5. She encouraged Mendy to open the first Senegalese restaurant in Boston, and continues to play a large role in her daughter’s culinary life. Every few months she sends ingredients necessary to make items like bouye juice, a sweet, milky drink made from baobab fruit.

Following her father’s wishes, Mendy studied international law in college in London, then moved to Washington, D.C., and earned a second degree in finance. She continued cooking, hosting dinner parties for friends and running a small home-based catering company to bring in extra income. She visited Boston in summer 2000, after months of nagging by a friend who insisted she would love it.

He was right. “I immediately fell in love with the city,’’ she says.

She moved here in April 2001, without an apartment, furniture, or a job, and was greeted by a blizzard. She settled in the South End and found her finance job, and, though she dislikes cold weather, she quickly felt at home. After colleagues begged for a bite of her homemade lunch a few too many times, she began to consider opening a restaurant. She started writing a business plan for a patisserie in 2002; seven years later, she opened Teranga.

In a green strapless dress, straw wedges, and green and gold jewelry, Mendy looks like she’s glided straight out of a fashion spread. “Sometimes I do cook in my outfits,’’ she admits. “I ruin all of my clothes doing that, because when I come in and we have a room full of people, I have to go and cook.’’

She briefly considered a career in the fashion industry, but realized her shortcomings. “Since I don’t know how to sew, or cut, I said OK, fine. I know how to cook,’’ she says.

When she first met with Teranga’s architect, she outlined her plan for a “chic African restaurant’’: no animal prints, no masks, just African materials. A self-described “art junkie’’ with no artistic skills of her own, Mendy decorated the dining room with paintings from her own collection. “One night I was sitting at home and I was like, I’m surrounded by art,’’ she says. “So I just took it off the walls.’’

Her commitment to creating that atmosphere is reflected in the restaurant’s name, which means “hospitality’’ and a little more in Wolof, the most common language of Senegal. “In Senegal, if you walk into my house unannounced and it’s lunchtime or dinnertime, we will give you the food and starve,’’ she says. “That’s what I’m trying to replicate here.’’

If her willingness to open her restaurant doors to regulars and friends at any hour is any indication, she’s succeeding so far. Shea Justice, a Jamaica Plain-based artist who has known Mendy for six years, says their group of friends gathers at Teranga once or twice a month. Two of Justice’s paintings hang there. “I’m lucky and privileged to be friends with Marie-Claude,’’ he says. “I was honored that she asked me to put work there.’’

If the South End held elections for a West African ambassador, Mendy would win in a landslide. She speaks Wolof, French, English, Spanish, and her ethnic group’s language — and uses all of them with co-workers, clients, staff, customers, and family. Even for a multi-tasker like Mendy, it gets confusing. “My brain mixes up everything,’’ she says. “I’ll talk to someone who I’m supposed to talk to in English, and I’ll say something in French. It’s so natural.’’

Teranga has already become a gathering place for diners with ties to Senegal or West Africa. Sarah Williamson went for the first time in mid-July. Williamson, 30, who spent a semester in Senegal in 2001, caught Mendy’s attention when she correctly pronounced thiebou djeun, the Senegalese national dish of herb-stuffed fish served with vegetables and broken jasmine rice, and the two chatted. “I think she’s done a really nice job of connecting,’’ says Williamson. “It’s very authentic.’’

At first Mendy was surprised when Caucasians spoke to her in Wolof; though she knew Peace Corps alumni in Washington, she had no idea they had a strong presence in Boston. But as more ex-Corps members came, bringing friends or relatives, Mendy began to feel responsible for their experience. “There was one day, one guy who hadn’t had our food in 40 years, and he was actually jumping and had teary eyes,’’ she says. “He was like, ‘This is exactly what I had [in Senegal].’ Bringing these people together, bringing back the emotions, the memories, it’s great.’’

Recently, a friend called Mendy to tell her he was bringing in a pair of visiting Congolese singers she has admired since childhood. “I was so excited, I was doing a dance on the phone,’’ she says. “That goes to tell you that the African community thinks of us very seriously as a nice restaurant to go to.’’

Beyond the food, Mendy herself has become a star attraction, providing a community away from wherever home may be.

“People tell me where their kids go on vacation, where their grandparents are from, who was born in Africa,’’ she says. “I meet great, great people. For me, that’s priceless.’’

Natalie Southwick can be reached at nsouthwick@globe.com.

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