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Fatou Wilson, who immigrated from West Africa in 1990, was just named Bon Appetit’s worker of the year. She has loved to cook since she discovered it at the age of 10.

Photo: Krisha Vasani / The Daily Pennsylvanian

When she came to America for the first time in 1990, Fatou Wilson knew no one. “I came to follow my dream,” she said.

That dream was opening a restaurant. In time, she would open multiple locations of Fatou and Fama, award-winning restaurants that made her an icon in Philadelphia.

Now, 23 years later, Wilson has just won Bon Appétit’s National Worker of the Year as a chef in Houston Market. “I can’t explain how happy I am to get the award,” she said.

Bon Appétit is a large company with over 500 locations in 32 states, and Wilson beat out competitors from everyone of these locations, including large cafes in companies like from Google and AT&T. “Her work ethic is exceptional, hard to find these days … she’s kind of revered,” said Mathew Morett, executive chef at Houston.

Wilson’s dedication to cooking began early, during her childhood in Senegal. “Since I was 10, I’ve always been involved with food,” Wilson said. “It’s the only passion I’ve had.”

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Before coming to the United States, Wilson made her living as a baker. When she crossed the Atlantic, she found work in a number of restaurants around Philadelphia. In 1995, tired of working for others, she founded her first Fatou and Fama — named for herself and her mother — on 61st and Landsdowne Avenue. She later moved it to 40th and Chestnut streets, and opened another restaurant in South Philadelphia in 2007.

But then times got tough. The recession struck in 2008, and Wilson, forced out of business by the economic downturn, took some time to return to Senegal. After spending a short amount of time in Senegal, she returned later that year and got a job at Houston Market.

“I’ve been able to do what I wanted to here,” she said about her experience working in Houston.

Throughout her culinary career, Wilson has specialized in the food of her home, bringing West Africa into West Philadelphia. The website for her old restaurant is still up, and gives an example recipe with multiple kinds of spices and peppers, three pounds of fish, sweet cassava and okra. Though not every ingredient available at home is available here, “you find something close that will bring the same flavor,” she says.

When she cooks for the Hemispheres station, she does still bring in some of those tastes. “She makes the best jerk chicken outside of Jamaica,” Morett said.

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Given Wilson’s work ethic and culinary history, it came as no surprise to the rest of the other employees when her name was announced as the award winner. When Stephen Scardina, Bon Appétit’s resident district manager, was detailing the criteria for the award, “everyone started whispering ‘Fatou,’ without knowing she would get it,” said Beth Bayrd, Marketing Manager for the company.

For Wilson, the award was a pleasant shock. She had been sick at home for a while, agitating to get back to work, and “was very surprised,” she said.

Now fully recovered, Wilson will be flown down to Orlando within the month to be presented the award at a national company meeting. But she doesn’t let the fame blind her passion. “I still have a lot to learn,” she said.

Morett, however, couldn’t find enough words to praise his star chef, saying, “Employee of the year … employee of the decade, as far as I’m concerned!”

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