The newest star of Paris’ restaurant scene has spent his 28 years enjoying big, noisy dinners. Raised by Malian immigrant parents in France, Mory Sacko and his eight siblings crowded at night around platters of their mother’s spicy West African cooking. “Dinner was always a party,” he says.

Now the party has come to him. Sacko left school at 14 and later worked in some of the most renowned kitchens in the French capital, learning from haute cuisine masters at establishments like the Shangri-La and Mandarin Oriental.

In September he opened his first restaurant, MoSuke, in the Montparnasse district, offering a fusion of African, French and Japanese flavors, the latter inspired by anime he watched on TV as a child. In the two months before a nationwide lockdown shut all restaurants, the pocket-size eatery won rave reviews and earned a Michelin star. “It was as fast as it gets,” he says. “I was not expecting it at all.”

Mory Sacko (Edgar Berg for TIME)
Mory Sacko
Edgar Berg for TIME

Then, in February, Sacko was made host of Cuisine Ouverte (Open Kitchen), a new show on French TV where he cooks alongside a different famous chef each week, tweaking French classics like bouillabaisse with his own diverse influences. Sacko says the network was “courageous” to have picked him—6 ft. 5 in., with dreadlocks, the child of African immigrants—as host. “We expected a sh-tstorm.”

Instead the show has been a hit, drawing up to 1.6 million viewers and heralding a cultural moment. Debuting as France has been grappling with fraught issues of racial identity, it offers a radically updated version of one of the country’s most cherished traditions. “People are very enthusiastic,” Sacko says. “It really is a sign that there is change in France.”

For millions who might never eat at MoSuke, it has also cemented Sacko as a new kind of national icon. Some have written to him from poor neighborhoods, he says, saying his recognition has led them to dream of becoming a chef, rather than a singer or a footballer. “I find myself in this position as a role model,” he says. “That is not necessarily what I was expecting. I was cooking to cook, to have fun. But it is a great pride.”

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