“Atelier” is a French word, meaning workshop or studio, and isn’t normally associated with a restaurant. But it works fittingly to describe one of Charleston’s newest downtown restaurants located at 8D Line Street and helmed by chef Bintou N’Daw Young. The name of the restaurant, Bintü Atelier, speaks to the influence of the French colonization of Senegal, where N’Daw Young was raised, but also to much more.
Born in Dakar, Senegal, but raised on the island of St. Louis, N’Daw Young said Charleston reminds her of the island — a complicated but beautiful place with unique architecture, brightly colored buildings and cobblestone streets.
N’Daw Young’s mother is biracial, being of both French and Senegalese descent, and she and her family lived in and often visited France, where she got her first experiences learning French cuisine directly from the source.
Her grandmother in France was a caterer and lover of Auguste Escoffier, the French chef best known for modernizing French cuisine and technique, with his influence reaching around the world. Her grandmother would teach her how to make bread from scratch and other rustic French cooking methods while she was there.
N’Daw Young’s other grandmother in Dakar also operated a catering company, so while in Senegal, she was learning traditional West African dishes and those influenced by French, Vietnamese, Moroccan and other cultures that had been prevalent in the country.
Eventually, her mother decided to move them to France permanently, where N’Daw Young would go to pastry school.
She discovered quickly that she didn’t enjoy pastry, but she still had a love for cooking savory foods, so she staged, or interned, around the world. She cooked in fine dining kitchens in France and Spain and all across Africa in countries like Tanzania and Cameroon, eventually settling and working as a traveling chef for a family that soon moved to New York City.
Not long after moving to New York, N’Daw Young’s mother followed her, and soon they started Nafis, a packaged sauce brand focused on making traditional Senegalese sauces, such as peanut-based mafe, accessible to the average diner. Soon, Nafis sauces were picked up by Whole Foods in the Northeast, greatly ramping up the line’s production and N’Daw Young’s profile as a chef.
At the same time, N’Daw Young was balancing working in restaurants and working as a private chef for celebrities like DJ Khaled. Not long before the Covid-19 shutdown began, she would open her first restaurant in the Bronx, iNINE Bistro, which thrived even throughout the pandemic.
However in their free time, she and her husband would often travel to and explore the Southeast. When a close friend of theirs moved to Charleston, N’Daw Young would come to visit and fell deeply in love. “I felt the influence of the French and an even deeper connection here when I learned of the Gullah Geechee culture,” she told the Charleston City Paper.
She decided to pack up and move to Charleston, where she worked at local French restaurant Chez Nous for a year.
Things weren’t going exactly as planned, but an opportunity fell into her lap as she was considering moving back to New York City.
Someone told her about a small available space on Line Street, and they wanted her to open a restaurant. The caveat? She’d have to open in just two months.
“I saw Africa here,” N’Daw Young said. “From the language, food, architecture, the water, it felt like home here. It’s just as important for African people from the continent to link all of the knowledge out there and revive the discussion and see how African culture and people are here. Through food, we can cross the boundaries of any human disagreements.”
So she and her husband decided to stay. She and her mother have begun to move the production of Nafis to Walterboro, where they have the capabilities to grow their business in a way they weren’t able to before.They’re even creating a new pineapple hot sauce called “Charleston Heat,” and hope to get distribution in Whole Foods here in Charleston while Bintü Atelier continues to grow.
The restaurant is small, only holding about a dozen or so people on its outdoor patio until inside renovations are complete. The indoor seating will accommodate an additional 20-plus people at a family-style dinner table.
While the restaurant is an homage to N’Daw Young’s Senegalese and French roots, it’s also a home to tell her culinary story — a place to show off old-school French country cuisine she loves and the history and diversity of Senegalese cuisine.
But Bintü Atelier is a workshop first and a restaurant second.
While it is rooted in West African cuisine, N’Daw Young aims to show more than one country or one region. She won’t just present the many dishes in West Africa — the whole continent and its multitude of cuisines and cultures will be highlighted. She intends to invite other African chefs to the workshop to tell their story and share their country.
Her dream and goal is to incorporate and showcase African cultures, foods and techniques. For example, she’s planning on highlighting Ethiopian food and cooking dishes through traditional cooking methods like using ceramic or clay cookware called tagines. And she wants chefs from across the African diaspora, including Caribbean, Brazilian and, of course, Gullah Geechee cuisines to come and show their foodways too.
“I have already seen the limitations that are placed on African food in mainstream culture,” she said. “But one thing that we all have is the connection of eating good food together. From the Viet living in Dakar to the Indians in South Africa, I want to bring that to Charleston’s table.”
N’Daw Young, who is always working on something and stays busy, wants Bintü Atelier to be an example of an ongoing endeavor. It features an ever-evolving menu, with some staples, so she can introduce people to new cuisines and cultures, and hopes to see other African and diasporic cuisines continue to come to Charleston.
The word and name “Bintü” holds a special place in Senegalese culture and in N’Daw Young’s own family. It is her aunt’s name, another woman in her family who she holds in high revere.
“Bint-,” used as a prefix in Arabic, signifies the first, and “Binta” or “Bintu” stands for the first daughter who is born in a family, which N’Daw Young is in her own family. But to her, she sees it as a shining symbol of being the first but most definitely not the last African restaurant to come to downtown Charleston.
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