If you follow blogs in Kenya, you have probably heard of The Underground Gourmet. This is one of the greatest culinary blog. The owner is a chef (who requested to remain anonymous) but we can call him ‘The Underground Gourmet’. I recently caught up with him and we had a very fun interview. It was as eye-opening as it was fun. Here is what we talked about.
1. Who are you?( a short bio, age, strengths, weaknesses)
The bio is on my blog. here .However, not stated is that I am French. I do not say it much because some people tend to go in cognitive dissonance mode when I say that. Sorry, my sarcastic side has come out.
Seriously, I think my persona is irrelevant since I blog about cooking. I used only items and product available in the Kenyan markets. Also, I want to break the stereotype that it is not possible to cook or create fine culinary dishes in Kenya. I cook all the dishes presented on my blog with ingredients found on the local market.
2. Briefly explain how you started and how you knew you wanted to be a chef.
I am multi-tasked and done many things in life. However, cooking has always been within me, I started a couple of restaurants in Kenya. Then life decided that I must do something else and I went back home for formal training in cooking because I seriously enjoy it. Cooking is an art which gets an instant response when tasted. I have been in the food business for over 15 years and worked in France, the US, the Caribbean and Kenya.
3. What are your achievements and among them what is your career milestone?
Jean, let’s have fun. I popularized colors in bars, mojitos, sangria served in pitchers, fajitas, homemade tortillas (not thin chapatis served as tortillas). All the aforementioned provided in the musical background of salsa. The new owners can vouch to that. I am ready for the challenge.
4. Let’s assume I was coming to your place for lunch on a weekend, what food would you make me? (Assume I had skipped breakfast).
Before you come I will ask your liking in food experience. From your answer I will make a three course dinner. I always make a three course dinner for my guests ,which is a starter, main course and dessert. I create from what is available and fresh in the market. I will create a dish leaving memories of a nice eating experience.
5. What is your worst kitchen disaster?Yes, mistakes have been made in my kitchen. However, I am too careful for disaster.
6. What is your masterpiece in the kitchen? That dish you prepare with such precision and skill?
A real chef does not have a single masterpiece. Anyone chef or cook telling you they have a masterpiece must go back to school for further studies in culinary creativity.
7. You trained in French culinary art. Tell me about that.
I chose French cooking, because I am French and do prefer French cooking techniques. Yes, cooking is made of techniques enabling one to make recipes. However, besides French cooking, I have personally greatly been influenced by Latin cooking.
The name of one of my courses was “perfectionnement de l’art culinaire” meaning perfecting the art of cooking. Yes, cooking is an art.
8. How many countries have you traveled?
I have not counted but I safely can say well over 25. However, I have never been to the Asian continent.
9. How receptive are Kenyans to French cuisine? Is there a gap that needs to be filled with regards to people in Kenya ordering French food?
Kenyans, in general, need more exposure to various type of cooking. Their taste buds are limited to the dishes served at home. They rarely wholeheartedly patronize or cook other ethnic food such as Italian, Chinese, Indian, Italian, French or Japanese. I don’t understand, since Kenyan food has a massive Indian and Arab influence such as Kachumbari, Chapatti or as shown in many Swahili dishes from the coast.
Almost all nations have a Nyama Choma. Roasting meat is universal so I cannot call it a Kenyan dish.
10. You have a blog? How do you balance work and writing?
I presently do not work and my blog is my relaxation. It allows me to visit old recipes and invent new one. The most important, and very enjoyable, is sharing culinary experiences.
11. What would you advice people who are starting out?
Go for it as long as you have passion and creativity. However, remember the food industry is challenging and extremely strenuous but provides unequal personals satisfaction.
12. Do you have any pet peeves in the Kitchen?
A kitchen not providing consistent output drives me crazy.
13. You say that you don’t use mayo from the jar, you make yours…Tell us about that.
Homemade mayonnaise is by far better than the jar one. I do show how make mayonnaise on my blog. The first time I saw mayonnaise from a jar is when I moved to the USA as a teenager. French rarely buy already made mayonnaise for home use. On this topic, in some culinary arenas, competence is proven by making sauces and hollandaise and mayonnaise are some of them.
14. In your blog, you asserted that you are in love with Africa in terms of getting fresh fruit and vegetables. Please explain.You are right. The quality of the fruits and vegetables in Kenya is excellent. Matter of fact I have purchased green beans from Kenya in French supermarket. Fruits and vegetables are almost organic and have a superior texture, scent and aroma to what is available in Europe or North America. I am sure than any Kenyan expats abroad noticed this difference.
Sadly, things are changing rapidly. I have recently purchased red onions the size of cricket balls.
Eggs are also very good, their shells are harder than the ones in the western world. The chickens are smaller and more natural in size than their industrial counterparts and I hope they have some kind of outdoor life before slaughtering. Animal meat is the only drawback. It is tough and rarely aged or cured before put on a market shelf. I believe that bovines, goats and the like should graze in pasture instead of travelling kilometers from grassy patch to grassy patch. Their lives look so miserable that it saddens me. I do not tolerate cruelty of any animals whose fate is a slaughterhouse, they all deserve a decent life.
15. I recently applied for a course to show me how to make various cocktails, any advice to me and anyone venturing in beverages?
Bar-tending School requires knowledge of recipes and product served and is much different from the profession of Sommelier. A good bartender must follow trends, be extroverted, and have patience and a listening ear for patrons. Oops, you stated “to show me how to make various cocktails”. Go for, you own whatever you learn and that only can be positive.
16. Where can people find you? Do you cook for any restaurant or do you get hired for events?
People find me on my blog. I do not cook for restaurants or hire myself for event. However, (there is always a however), I have recently and for fun, done a private cooking demonstration for 120 friends. It was a lot of fun. I have done consultancy and do not mind showing off how to do this and that to food aficionados.
17. What meal is the best to prepare for an intimate dinner?
There is no such thing as a best meal. People who are really intimate always enjoy a nice meal together.
18. It is almost Christmas. What can’t you go wrong with?First a Kir Royal then let’s go to the kitchen and cook.
Here are a few of his dishes.
French Beans with garlic.
Gratin Potatoes with Cheese
Oven Fried Tomato Confit
I enjoyed this interview. Thankyou ‘The Underground Gourmet’. For more information and recipes go to http://theundergroundgourmet.wordpress.com