Food and drink and storytelling have gone hand in hand for years. There’s nothing more enjoyable for some than sitting down to a good meal with friends and family and catching up on life, which inevitably means telling stories about work, relationships, hobbies etc.
One chef has taken the influence of storytelling and used it as inspiration for a new menu. Chef Modou Diagne’s life story, so far, is one of overcoming incredible challenges and thriving in Scotland as head chef of 111 by Modou.
In early March 2020 it was announced that 111 by Nico - Nico Simeone’s (of Six by Nico fame) original restaurant - was to become 111 by Modou as chef Nico handed the business over to Modou Diagne. Modou, originally from Senegal, spent much of his younger life in Spain, before travelling to Glasgow by himself when he was 18 and with only £200 in his pocket to look for opportunities. He slept rough for ten days until he found refuge in a Shelter charity church that helps the homeless before eventually finding permanent shelter.
After a year continuously applying for jobs with no success due to very poor English, he came across a recruitment advert Nico had posted online in 2014 for a kitchen porter at 111 by Nico. Nico met and hired Moodu and within two months he noticed Modou had an unbelievable work ethic, a healthy respect and a positive attitude towards work.
Nico began to teach him the fundamentals of kitchen hygiene, to understand basic food ingredients, how to hold a knife, develop more complex skills and eventually the basics of cooking.
Modou was able to save enough money working at 111 to move into a hostel and get off the streets. Working with Nico over the years, Modou has played an intrinsic role in the 111 by Nico story and its success. He helped with the launch of previous menus such as the Trust and Total Trust concepts, and spearheaded the popular 10 course tasting menu.
Having survived the covid lockdowns and restrictions (Modou worked with Nico on the ‘cook at home’ boxes for the company’s ecommerce site), the chef has recently introduced a new menu, full of dishes that have been inspired by his life so far.
The restaurant has, in recent months, had rave reviews from Scottish and national press, but this feels like the most personal addition Modou has made to the restaurant since he took it over. Titled Inspire, the new menu is available Thursday-Saturday and is billed as a ‘conceptual journey’ through the chef’s life and includes childhood dishes, pivotal moments, and memories.
Dishes have names such as ‘first dish I learnt’ and ‘food bank’, and each has a short story that is told by waiting staff in the small dining room, with its open kitchen, where diners can see the man himself - a calm presence among the bustle of a busy service.
To start there was an amuse bouche for all - a silken, vibrant carrot volute with pickled carrot discs, carrot powder and pumpkin seed pesto all topped with herb oil, before we could choose what dishes we’d like to order to make up the five course tasting menu.
There’s a mix of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes, and all have intriguing names. I went for a fully veggie meal that started with morning roll, as course two; followed by favourite ingredient, then food bank and finally my kids and I.
Morning roll has been inspired by Modou’s usual order from the cafe next door, and is a bit of a take on a deconstructed potato scone roll (is there anything more west coast?). It was a stack of thinly sliced potato terrine served with a tiny crispy coated egg on top of a rich Beurre blanc sauce.
Modou’s favourite ingredient, it turns out, is cauliflower and is described as a reflection of his change in palate as a chef and how he has progressed. The dish features a perfectly charred piece of cauliflower topped with spears of samphire and a bright crumble-like spice top.
Then it was on to food bank, which is a mushroom dish inspired by a ‘memorable act of kindness’ when Modou was living at a homeless shelter. He found he couldn’t have donated items such as pizza, as they weren’t halal, but on one occasion he was provided with a mushroom pizza so he was able to enjoy this meal with the rest of the people there.
This dish comprises sourdough gnocchi, meaty hen of the woods mushroom, a delicate smoked tomato dressing, truffle emulsion and cheese royale. Finally dessert, which was a light, not too sweet milk pudding with passion fruit and watermelon and is described as being special as it reminds Modou of bedtime stories with his kids."
On the menu, there’s also dishes such as rabbit - something he’d never cooked with before but learnt how to use all parts and a seabass dish which he said he could ‘eat every single day’ as it reminds him of home and his mother’s cooking.
Inspire is a culinary journey, with the refinement regulars have come to expect from this compact, neighbourhood restaurant which is tucked away from the main hot spots in the west end. With it, Modou has invited us to walk through some of his most personal moments, and uses his talent to tell the story with each plate. It was a joy to experience.