Chef Joseph Wamoto is the head chef at Sikia, Crowne Plaza. Cooking has always been a part of his life and we sit down with him to learn about his journey to becoming a chef which entails a cameo on Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef.
There is only one moment throughout our conversation when Joseph Wamoto breaks out of his carefully measured persona in response to a question, mirth shines in his eyes as the laughter echoes from his stomach and across Sikia Restaurant on the mezzanine floor of the Crowne Plaza in Upper Hill, Nairobi.
The 60 person hotel has been set up for a fine dining experience – replete with spotless white tablecloths and napkins, polished silver and glassware – and the room is mostly quiet. Some people might prefer this lull but it is the storm that Joseph lives for. Amid the sizzle and sound of a busy kitchen, a rush of adrenaline courses through his veins giving him a buzz that has powered him for the 15 years since he became a chef.
In reality, Joseph’s first “Head Chef” title was tongue-in-cheek and wasn’t earned at a fine dining establishment but back when he was 10 years old and had become a fixture in his family kitchen. Recognising the potential of the hospitality industry in Kenya, his parents sent him to culinary school in London after he had finished secondary school, where he trained and studied for a number of years in various establishments.
In 2007, he returned to East Africa to build both Artcaffe in Nairobi and Breezes Hotel in Zanzibar from the ground up. Then, 6 years ago, he joined Crowne Plaza as Head Chef and today works a steady schedule of workdays that are uninterrupted for most of the year. Joseph is up and about by 5AM and after that, events rapidly blur into one another as he moves from one meal to the next: going through lunches and dinners, supervising the team of chefs under his care and managing all five restaurants at Crowne Plaza. Before he knows it, it’s 10PM and he leaves the restaurant to wake up early the next morning and repeat the same series of activities.
Given his demeanour throughout our conversation, I imagine that Joseph is less of a Gordon Ramsay type and more like a Yodi in the kitchen: commanding obedience by the sheer will of his calm yet firm energy. However, Joseph tells me that the two chefs have more in common than meets the eye: for one, both Joseph and the fiery British chef-turned-television-personality played sports before embarking on their cooking career: where Gordon Ramsay played football as a teen, Joseph Wamoto was a professional rugby player on the Kenyan Nondies Rugby Football Club. Another is a shared appearance on MasterChef in 2000, when Joseph was a commis trainee chef at The Fairmont in London.
I ask if there are any misconceptions that he has experienced in relation to his job and without a beat, he responds that he has always felt very respected for his work. Anything he doesn’t like? Joseph, ever positive, shakes his head and states easily, “I enjoy the job fully” but with a caveat, there is some disappointment when he encounters a customer who doesn’t like his food. Like the buzz of a busy kitchen, guest feedback is the other thing that sustains him. “Feedback gives us direction, ” he says.
With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he recalls a time when, after ordering and sampling a plate of steak tartare, a guest sent it back to the kitchen complaining, “You’ve given me raw meat!” On the other hand, he glows at a compliment which he received during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit last year, when, after observing him at his work for the days of the conference, a member of the US envoy told him, “I would like to be like you.”
When he tells me about cooking in his family kitchen as a 10 year old, I ask him what he thinks of people who say that boys should not be in the kitchen. Joseph chuckles heartily before responding, “I think there’s something that they’re missing out. Cooking does not have a gender.” What it does require, he adds, is the resilience to the early mornings and late nights and the ability to thrive under pressure.
In his free time, when he has it, you will find him watching a game of rugby with his friends, or dining out with his family, or watching a cooking show. One of Joseph’s favourite cooking shows, naturally, is MasterChef. It was thanks to his appearance on the show that Joseph obtained a job at the five star Savoy Hotel which in turn inspired him to pay it forward by mentoring young chefs in Kenya, for whom he has a few key words of wisdom: “Discipline is key. Be ready to learn and be creative.” Above all, he adds, “Be patient for growth.”