Picazzo Restaurant’s Hector Boo talked to us about how a set of serendipitous events brought him to Nairobi from his hometown of Galicia, Spain.
Hector Boo never intended to be a chef. Yet here he is, draped on a barstool, right leg touching the ground. It is almost lunch time and the staff at Picazzo Restaurant are busying themselves setting up the space. Two bar attendants drop a huge tub of crushed ice onto a table, droplets of water splashing across the entire surface. Chef Hector remains unfazed, continuing to talk about his love of food while always keeping an eye on the surrounding activities. Later, as the photographer snaps photographs of him, he will joke that she should “photoshop a smile on him”, in reference to the fact that the affable chef maintains more or less the same facial expression throughout the interview.
Born in 1985 in Galicia, Spain, Hector Boo grew up in a family of gastronomes, including a father who has always been “very passionate about food– very particular” and a grandmother who worked as a personal chef. As an adolescent, young Hector enjoyed helping his grandmother cook but ultimately planned on going to medical school. The summer before he was due to start university he interned at his brother’s restaurant as a way to make money. Three months later he was so smitten with the kitchen that plans changed, “And I never went back [to school].”
Soon after failing to begin his studies, Hector started to work, rising through the ranks at Bellavista, a vegetarian restaurant on the Majorca Islands. However, he soon hit a bit of a snag: his lack of English meant he struggled to communicate with many of the tourists who visited the island and his restaurant. Realizing that English language skills would open up a wider range of opportunities, he made the decision to move to London. In what he describes as the lowest point in his career, Hector found that he had to start from the bottom all over again until he was more fluent, taking on internships and working on improving his English language skills. By the time Soho House & Co had an open call for interested chefs in London, he was proficient enough that he successfully made it through the selection process. With Soho, he worked in various clubs across London, before moving to Amsterdam and then on to Berlin.
In Berlin, at a music festival attended by the Jamaican musician Lutan Fyah, Chef Hector met a woman on holiday, a social worker from Kenya who was at the time working in Europe. Was it love at first sight? “Yes,” he confesses, “It happened very fast. People were laughing at me.”
When the woman, Nelly, decided to return to Kenya because she wanted to work with her community back home, Hector decided to join her. The transition, however, was not seamless: “It was my first time in Kenya and in Africa… I didn’t understand the culture properly,” he says looking back at that time. Chef Hector was however lucky to find a community at his workplace, Brew Bistro, whose managers he describes as being “like [his] family”. He also got linked to the Spanish Embassy, who in turn connected him to a group of investors that were looking for an Executive Chef to set up Picazzo Restaurant. For months, Chef Hector worked to conceptualize the restaurant and the menu from scratch.
Picazzo’s Nairobi Restaurant Week menu paid homage to this Spanish-Kenyan connection, with dishes such as the ‘Chocolate Samosa’ and the ‘Mursik Salad’, the latter which was made using squid ink colored cassava, edible charcoal, a topping of soft cheese and a balsamic seasoning containing ground simsim. The textures, colors and tastes were inspired by the traditional sour milk delicacy, he explains, adding that he finds Kenyan and Spanish cuisines to be very similar. As an example, he cites morcilla, a Spanish blood sausage which is a salty cured version of our mutura. When it comes to culture, however, some things are not quite the same, as he found out the first time he visited his now wife’s home, close to the border of Kenya and Tanzania: “When I went to the rural area– “my ushago’, I wanted to see what they were doing in the kitchen, what was happening and they were like, ‘no you shouldn’t be here’. But I wanted to help. The first day I kept a bit quiet but from there they began to understand that this is who I am.”
Outside of his work at Picazzo, Chef Hector is in the middle of designing a line of afro-inspired chef’s uniforms and is, in fact, wearing one of his designs during the interview. In his free time, he likes “to cook, to go out and see different places, to see what is coming up, [and] how the country is changing.”