Finding a Calling
Elhadji Cisse moved to New York from Senegal as a 17 year-old boy with no money and no idea where to begin. His first job was delivering food on the Upper East Side. “People tipped in a way that made me feel like I was begging and not deserving, it was tough to accept that every day.” He later moved on to dishwashing, but was fired for not speaking “proper” English.
Yet despite the challenging environments, Ehadji’s initial experiences working in restaurants left him wanting to be in the kitchen. “I was falling in love with cooking and realized it was what I wanted to do.” His culinary passion lead him from one restaurant position to the next and by age 21, he was promoted to head chef at a restaurant in Manhattan. Soon enough, opportunities began knocking on his door, and Ehadji found himself working with renowned international chefs in the kitchens of celebrated New York restaurants.
Serving Up What the Neighborhood Wants
In 2008, Elhadji felt ready to open his own restaurant. Together with his cousin, he opened Ponte Bistro, an African-inspired French and Italian fusion restaurant in Gramercy Park, and soon after, a second location in Harlem. Three years later, they opened their third restaurant, Renaissance Harlem. To help finance the construction, equipment and a starting inventory, they received a $150,000 loan from Accion.
Renaissance Harlem is a testament to the neighborhood that Elhadji has now lived for 22 years, the neighborhood he proudly calls home and where he wants his children to grow up. The menu reflects “a succession of flavors that capture the combination of cultures and foods found in Harlem.” Elhadji believes that despite the everchanging demographic of the neighborhood, the unanimous need will always remain the same: “people just want good food.” He humbly adds that there is always more to learn, but asserts that, “I arrived with nothing and today I employ 50 people, it’s only the beginning.”