We interview Chef Isaac Arunga of Lord Erroll about his experience in the industry from hosting a TV show to meeting Zinedine Zidane while working in Dubai.
In the learned opinion of Isaac Arunga, one of the chefs at the Lord Erroll in Runda, there are various things that can make or break a burger: the bun could be too dry, the seasoning can be too little or too much. The worst thing in Chef Isaac’s opinion, however, is for a patty to be overcooked or dry.
We are seated at the balcony; the restaurant is quiet, almost eerily so but we’re here early in the morning, so it makes sense. The tables all around us are set for lunch, to our left the bar is dim, shiny bottles of hard liquor standing behind a carved wooden tabletop. To our right, the balcony looks out over a garden where two fat furry cats are scampering delightedly after a waiter carrying a plate of cat food out to the green. Around the other side of the building, in one of the conference rooms, a group sits in a workshop, outside the staff set up the area for their tea break: laying out white saucers and cups around two large silver vats of hot beverages. The ambiance is leafy and airy, enough to make one breathe easier, especially if you are coming straight from the smog and smoke of Nairobi’s busier parts.
Chef Arunga, who has been at Lord Erroll since February of this year, sports a clean-shaven head that leads down to a full beard, a look he says he borrowed from his father. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and a black apron, he walks with a confident gait across the restaurant, a checked dishtowel in his back pocket swinging in time with his step. If something seems vaguely familiar about him when you first meet him in person, it might be that you remember him from the three seasons when he was the host on KBC’s cooking show, Chakula Bora. Yet the camera-shy chef, rapping his knuckles self-consciously on the table as our cameraman snaps photographs of him, is perhaps the last person you would expect to end up on a television show.
“They asked me to do it because I was good-looking,” he jokes wryly of this previous chapter in his 13 year career, speaking in a Kenyan accent coloured with influences from his travels abroad. His career, he tells us, has spanned locations as diverse as the Sarova in Nairobi, the Ritz in London and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Three years ago, he eventually returned to Kenya when he was expecting his first child, a daughter.
You would be hard-pressed to find a chef who does not speak of how the intense hours and travel expected of the job make it difficult to carve out the time to be around family, and Chef Arunga is no exception. Awake and on his feet long before 7AM, he begins his days early and ends his days late, often at around 10PM but sometimes as late as midnight. His tasks are a combination of the humdrum tasks of any chef: working on menus, preparing the lunch, afternoon tea and dinner service, and meetings. Arunga checks his email once a day, in the morning when he arrives at the restaurant, and otherwise avoids the distractions of the Internet. When he has a free evening, he will spend time with his family or watch a football game with friends.
The challenge is offset somewhat by the perks of the job – the chance to hone his skills and practice his love for fine dining, as well as the opportunity to meet people. He boasts, for instance, of an encounter with Zinedine Zidane while in Dubai. An avid fan of Manchester United football club, Chef Arunga dreams of meeting former manager Alex Ferguson. “I would love to make him haggis,” he says, “I don’t know how to make haggis, but I would find a way.”
Last year in December, Chef Isaac visited Lord Erroll for the first time, and was at once struck by the beauty of the place: “The beauty, the old charm, there was just something about it.” It was this beauty, together with the projects that the owners of Lord Erroll had slated for the coming year that had him hooked. When pressed for details, he laughs, “We cannot reveal our secrets.” But whatever it was, it excited him enough that he took on the role, “Going forward, the plans we have for the place, it’s a new challenge.”
When he started this job 13 years ago, Chef Arunga was driven by a love for food and a desire to bring something special to those he cooked for, a fine dining experience that would delight the senses: with its colours and presentation, with its flavours and taste, and with its texture. Having learnt through apprenticeship, he would tell a younger version of himself to “stick to it, be patient, and have a work ethic,” the same principles that he says have been his guiding philosophy.
For this year’s Nairobi Burger Festival, Chef Arunga is looking forward to dazzling visitors to Lord Erroll with a variety of items, including a specialty foie gras patty burger that he remembers as his most delicious burger creation. “Foie gras is very buttery, it’s fatty, you stuff it into a burger patty and then you cook it medium. [When] you take a bite you feel the moistness and the texture…” He reckons this would be the perfect item for the upcoming festival, in addition to options ranging from salmon to lamb to a vegetarian option.