Musings of a culinary expert – CHEF COSMAS KITUKU
hef Cosmas certainly looks at home when we meet at Crowne Plaza Hotel for this interview. Undoubtedly, this has to do with his chef’s attire: the crisp white toque blanche
hef Cosmas certainly looks at home when we meet at Crowne Plaza Hotel for this interview. Undoubtedly, this has to do with his chef’s attire: the crisp white toque blanche (chef’s hat) and his white double-breasted coat that blends in perfectly with the restaurant’s atmosphere. However, the kitchen is where I see him in his true element as he and his junior chefs prepare one of their signature dishes – fillet of Norwegian Salmon.
If his father’s wishes had gone according to plan, Cosmas would have been an engineer. Unbeknown to his father, something else had captured his interest. “My mother used to sell merchandise to tourists in hotels at the Coast and every time I accompanied her, I would see the chefs with their uniforms and it fascinated me,” he starts off the interview.
And just like that, his interest was piqued. The influence from the Coastal area, particularly Mombasa with its coastal delicacies, also served to propel him towards a career in the culinary space. After finishing his secondary level education, he swiftly applied to go study at a culinary school in London.
Being a marine engineer himself, his father knew, without a doubt, that Cosmas would be an engineer as well. So when Cosmas broke the news to him, he did not take it kindly.
“My father was livid! He gave me one hot slap that I remember to date,” he says chuckling. “He felt that being a chef was a lowly job, especially for a man, and he did not hesitate to say as much,” he adds.
Although he did not necessarily give up on his dream, his father’s reaction certainly put a damper on his plan. His elder sister, however, was his saving grace. Through a contact at the university, she acquired application forms for an engineering course and they passed them off as his. He then proceeded to pursue his career of choice. His father was none the wiser during the four-year duration of his food production studies at Hammersmith College.
After university, he got a job at the Intercontinental Hotel in London and after a while, with his earnings, he organised for his father to go and visit him in London. “We had not told him anything about me working as a chef, so after he had eaten, I quietly stepped out from the kitchen in my uniform. Naturally, he was very shocked,” he recollects.
The initial shock quickly turned into a pleasant surprise when he realised that Cosmas had been able to pay for his expenditure as well as his personal upkeep from his job as a chef. It was at that moment that his father embraced him in a show of validation.
Journey across Africa
On leaving London, he promptly got a job at Serena Hotel, Mombasa, after which he did a brief stint at the Grand Regency Hotel, now Laico Regency Hotel, Nairobi, before going back to Mombasa. In 1995, as Serena Hotel started expanding into East Africa, he was selected to go and train the staff at its Zanzibar branch. He then went on to work across their other branches in Uganda and Mozambique. He also worked in West and Southern Africa where he picked up on the tradition surrounding the preparation and consumption of food and other food cultures.
It was in Zanzibar, however, where his creativity with food picked pace. He says that his favourite food to cook is ‘kuku wa kupaka’ which is chicken that is marinated in coconut and other spices like garam masala to give it a unique taste.
He then went back to Hammersmith College for a course in pastry-making and sugar works in order to diversify his skills. Once qualified, he trained other chefs in pastry making for a couple of years before going back to his specialty.
“My journey across Africa was very enlightening. I learnt a lot about other countries’ traditional cuisine but it also challenged me because I realised that most Kenyans have abandoned their traditional cuisines. There is a junk food culture that is cropping up in Kenya that if not checked, threatens healthy living,” he narrates. He admits that he is very keen on teaching those around him how to enjoy food as opposed to just eating.
With 27 years in the industry, he has seen his share of challenges. The first he experienced was during his time in London. “I have never faced a tougher time in my career like I did in London. There was a lot of racism in those days and being young and in a foreign country, was quite challenging,” he offers.
The other one that comes at a very close second is during his stint in Mozambique. He not only had to learn the local Portuguese, but he also had to contend with a workforce whose average age was around 45 as the FRELIMO war – Mozambican Civil War that lasted from 1977 to 1992 – had put many young people out of school. The educational divide left only people well advanced in age in the workplace. He, however, maneuvered the challenges and proudly informs me that he trained them to five-star standard. Climbing through the ranks to executive chef, a position he has held once before, was also no mean feat.
Aside from the recipes he picked up and the interaction with different African cultures and cuisines, he fondly reminisces on his most memorable experiences away from home. One of this is when American actor Will Smith stayed at the Polana Serena in Mozambique and the chef made him a signature Mozambican dish that left him so impressed that he wanted to go back and introduce it to his home country.
Having stayed at Polana for several years, he also recounts his most memorable clients, with the Late Nelson Mandela topping the list. “After he married Graca Machel, he used to spend a lot of time in Mozambique. Cooking for him was a breeze because he liked simple meals and he was also a great conversationalist,” he shares.
He also had a chance to teach former Botswana president Ian Khama, commonly referred to as the ‘bachelor president’, how to make lasagna – something that amuses him to date due to the former president’s enthusiasm to learn. Other notable guests that he has cooked for are His Highness the Aga Khan, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and China’s President Xi Jinping among others. It was during the Chinese president’s visit that he tasted dog meat, which he says is the strangest thing he has ever eaten.
His introduction to West African dishes was also memorable to him due to their affinity to pepper. He was at one point admitted to hospital as his system had a hard time adjusting. An achievement that he is also keen to point out is being able to learn, converse in and write a menu in Portuguese, a skill he picked up while working at the Polana Serena in Mozambique.
On marriage and family
Chef Cosmas is married and has four children whom he speaks fondly of. Interestingly, when he met his wife, she was also working in the hospitality industry, which he says helped their marriage.
“Having someone who understands your career is very important, considering the hours someone like me has to work,” he says.
Curious to know what a man who has been cooking professionally for 27 years likes to eat? Just his wife’s food. No preferences whatsoever provided his wife has prepared it. He adds that his wife used to fret over what to cook for him but as time went by, she realised that he would eat anything she prepared.
His children, he explains, have also picked up on cooking; as it is something he was keen to teach them. “When they were young, we used to spend time cooking together and just having fun in the kitchen and I am glad they learnt so that they don’t depend on someone to make their meals,” he reveals.
One of his sons has also joined the industry, though in a front office position, something he is happy about, “Being a chef is a good career but it’s also draining and I would not want that for him.”
If he wasn’t cooking, chef Cosmas would probably be a farmer, something he does on the side, as he prefers fresh herbs to dry, processed ones. In his free time, he also likes to take trips with his wife.
He plans to share his recipes from his journey across Africa as well as reintroduce Kenyans to Kenyan cuisines and flavours through a YouTube channel. An advocate for healthy living, he would like Kenyans to adopt a food culture as well as learn to eat properly in this junk-food era. This is something he also emphasises to his juniors as he has now taken a training role at the restaurant.
He also plans to finish a book he has been writing on his experiences in different African cultures as well as the special recipes he picked up as he reiterates on his message for a proper Kenyan food culture. “If not for anything else, I would want to be remembered for getting Kenyans back to their healthy traditional cuisines,” he concludes.