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It took five years of 18-hour days to rise up the food chain

Food is life, so food will always be good business. But beyond that, it’s an expression of art and prowess, particularly when it involves running a complex operation of multiple restaurants, with nearly 70 employees in your team.

This is the life Simon Wanjau, the executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel in Nairobi, lives. He’s served presidents, princes, influential leaders, and catered events for more than 3,000 guests and 700 plated menus. But he’ll still put together a signature tart for a walk-in customer.

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For Simon, food is love. The 35-year-old has won more than 22 competitions around the world, headed the kitchens of luxury brands and made a name for himself as one of Nairobi’s top chefs. He shares with Hustle the sheer hard work that’s seen him excel.

Long, long, long hours. I first witnessed this from my father who was a chef. He worked extremely hard. He was one of the first African lecturers at Utalii College.

Weirdly enough, when I told him that I also wanted to be a chef, he tried to steer me towards photojournalism. But I stuck to my guns.

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What’s the career path that led you to being the executive chef at the InterContinental?

Here’s a weird fact: despite my father being a lecturer at Utalii, he enrolled me in a culinary college in Rongai that was run by his friends. I think he wanted to see how badly I wanted this career because my college life was tough. They were extremely hard on me.

Did you ever break?

No. It made me a better and more disciplined person, though I acquired a bit of an attitude and thought I knew everything.

When I got an attachment at the Norfolk Hotel in 2000, I met the executive chef, chef Mullan, the first day. By the end of that day, I’d been cut down to size. Chef Mullan declared he’d never employ me and my attitude.

I took that to heart and decided to prove him wrong. During the school term, my typical day would start at 5am. After classes, I’d clock into the hotel kitchen at 6pm and leave after midnight.

When I trained full-time in the kitchen, my day would start at 6am in the kitchen and end at midnight. My hard work paid off because chef Mullan employed me a year and a half later.

What were you being paid?

I think it was around Sh8,000. In this career, you can’t start out chasing money. You have to chase excellence first. I worked with chef Mullan for five years in total, at some point following him to a different hotel when he moved from Norfolk.

He would always tell the chefs who worked under him that one day we’d take over the town and to ensure this, he’d force you to leave his kitchen and look for a different job where you had more responsibility.

In 2005, he got me a job in Dubai as a sous-chef. Later, I got a job in Mozambique and had to learn Portuguese to communicate with my staff.

What impact have these experiences had on you?

I believe they’ve helped me bring diversity and develop a well-rounded skill-set. For instance, in Mozambique I worked with a predominantly young crew in a moderate size kitchen.

At the InterContinental, I had to change pace because I was dealing with many extremely experienced chefs, handling two restaurants, two bars and one coffee shop.

My team comprises 44 full-time chefs and 25 stewards. I learn from these people every day. Being a chef is equal parts leadership and humility – the leadership to run your brigade and the humility to know you never stop evolving.

You realise you come to life when you talk about food?

Yes. When I retire I want to start a culinary school, one that isn’t just affordable but prepares students better for their introduction into real-life kitchens. We run an apprenticeship programme and it’s become clear to me that so many graduate without covering all the basics that they should. I want to change that.

How much can a chef expect to earn?

Today, the starting point is usually Sh20,000, depending on the stature of the establishment. Depending on your growth curve, exposure and skill, you can raise these earnings to between Sh500,000 and Sh1 million.

There’s no cap, there is only how hard you’re willing to work and add your personal flair and signature to dishes.

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What are the more challenging aspects of your job?

At the InterContinental, we do outdoor catering, which includes banquets and conferences. For conferences it’s usually simpler because most clients prefer a buffet setting. But banquets often require plated service.

One of the toughest banquets we did was when we got the contract to cater at State House during US President Barack Obama’s visit. Of course we were excited, but that died quickly when the truth of the pressure dawned on us. We didn’t just have the reputation of the brand on my hands, we had the reputation of Kenya on my hands; the world was watching.

How did you pull it off?

It was an event with 400 guests. We first had to come up with a menu that reflected Kenya in a unique and modern way. We then had to clear this with the protocol officers and the executive chefs of both the White House and State House.

And then we went through the menu countless times until we got it right to the last single flavour and ingredient.

To add to the pressure, the Secret Service informed us that President Obama’s food would be picked at random. So all 400 plates had to be identical and of the same quality.

What did you serve?

We served cream of butternut and ginger soup. The starter was smoked chicken on baby leaves with a citrus mango dressing, and the mains was cannon of lamb, minted broccoli and asparagus. Dessert was a trio dessert of chocolate fondant, cheese cake and tropical fruits.

The White House executive chef applauded the service and food. He was extremely impressed we pulled this off, off-site. It was a proud moment.

How do you come off a high like that to a normal day?

There’s always another challenge to face, something else to look towards.

Last year we were part of an international event known as the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. It’s an event that attracts international food connoisseurs to taste and rate food and service at an establishment.

We spent six months putting together the menu and prepping the meals. We got a standing ovation for every single course.

What are your signature dishes?

I recently infused a dish from our Bhandini Restaurant, which serves Indian cuisine, into one of our pizzas.

The head chef, chef JP makes one of the best butternut chickens I’ve ever tasted. So I toyed with taking the same recipe and putting it on a pizza. It’s called the masala chicken pizza.

In pastries, my favourite is a sesame seed tart, which we make with layers of sesame seed and amarula.

There are other items on the menu that I take pride in, like the flat-headed lobster found off the shores of Mombasa, which was introduced to me by the local fishermen there. I also like the peri peri chicken which is so hot, we serve the peri peri as a side sauce for those brave enough to try it.

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