Talk of the town: fine dining in Freetown

Chef Susan Senesie spent 15 years working in high-end restaurants in London and is now opening Cotton Tree in Freetown, the city’s first fine-dining Sierra Leonean eatery

“I was born in Freetown but moved to London in 1990 when I was 16. At first I wanted to be an accountant, but my interest in food grew and I decided to do my chef’s qualifications first. I won best student of the year and my first work experience was at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. I never became an accountant in the end.

“After 20 years in London I moved back to Sierra Leone and started doing private catering, cookery classes and pop-up dinners – the first one I did was in a secluded spot at Hamilton Beach, south of Freetown, in 2012. The guests didn’t know the location until the day before. We laid out cushions on the sand for watching the sunset, then served them a four-course meal with local music and finished with a big bonfire on the beach. After that night, my phone didn’t stop ringing.

“All Freetown’s high-end restaurants are Mediterranean or Lebanese, and if you ask for the African dish of the day, it’s usually just jollof rice. But there’s so much variety in Sierra Leone and I want visitors to discover it, to help my country grow – that’s why I’m opening Cotton Tree.

“I host a TV show on African Young Voices TV called Treat Food. I go around tasting street food, learning how to make it authentically, and then I go to my kitchen and do my own take on it. I did one about traditional barbecue meat, which I served in a salad. People were shocked!

“One dish I love is cassava bread. It’s a kind of pancake made with ground cassava, served with a whole fried fish with a gravy stew. But I made it into a dessert, layered with hibiscus, ice cream and pineapple syrup. It’s unconventional but the people who tried it were licking their plates.

“Supporting the local economy is so important to me. Everyone at the local markets knows me because I’m there every other day. My vegetable sellers understand that my green beans must be green, my lettuce can’t be limp. At first my fishmonger thought I was too fussy, but now she always sells me the freshest, best seafood.”

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