In Kenya’s burgeoning and successful restaurant industry, it’s pretty hard to come by home-grown talent especially when it comes to top tier chefs. Eat Out seized the opportunity to speak to the charismatic, passionate and talented, Joseph Gacheru, Tamarind Group’s Executive Chef, who had lots to say about food and the industry in general.
How long have you been in the restaurant industry?
24 years, which is over half my life (Laughs).
When did your relationship with food begin?
I grew up in a typical Kenyan family where the perception was that cooking was for women. One of my sisters was and still is a great cook. In fact, my grandfather was very particular about the way that food was prepared. When tea was made, the water was brought to the boil and the tea was then left to infuse off the heat for some minutes and only then was the milk added. If it wasn’t made that way, he knew immediately and commented accordingly. It was always my sister who then used to cook most of the meals for the family, at my grandfather’s request. I learnt from an early age that there is a difference in food and in allowing oneself to be spoilt by GOOD food. The method for preparation, consideration and respect for food is very important to the final outcome.
And when did your career with food begin?
Firstly, my cousin was a lecturer at Utalii College, so I was always aware that there was an opportunity to make a career out of cooking. After college, I applied to Utalii 3 times and it was on the third attempt that I was accepted. Back in those days, Utalii was still managed by the Swiss, who also founded the college. The curriculum and training was tough and thorough. I studied food production for 2 years at Utalii and I never looked back. I knew this was what I loved doing.
So, if you were to create an equation for good food what would it be?
Care in preparation (impacts textures and flavours)
passion (a love for what you do and create is vital)
I would rather starve than have something that was substandard and I expect that patrons of our establishments would have the same ethos. In fact, the world famous Chaine des Rotisseurs organisation insists that its members never have any salt or pepper on the table, which really challenges the chef. Everything must be perfectly seasoned before it’s plated.
What inspires your cooking?
French cuisine is considered as the ‘mother’ of continental cuisine but I am certainly moving towards simple cooking. Sourcing and using local indigenous ingredients and creating a sort of fusion – it’s something that I am exploring. For example, lacing sauces or consommés with lavender or aloe vera. The new Tamarind menu features a prawn and amaranth (terere seed) soup.
What is the best… and the worst dish you’ve tried?
The best dish I have tried was when I was working at the Foliage – scallops seared in hazelnut oil with foie gras in a port and balsamic reduction, dusted with cocoa powder and seasoned with rock salt. The worst…my first encounter with frogs legs when I started working at Tamarind, 24 years ago…I am over it now.
What is your view on sustainability and sourcing local produce?
Of course, sourcing produce from local farmers and growers is ideal. The fresher the ingredients, the better the final outcome on the plate. The main challenge that we face despite the fertility of our soil and climate is consistency. Farmers are constantly over relying on rain for overall sustenance. This means that supply and relative costs fluctuate – difficult for the average citizen and those within the food industry. The government really needs to empower and subsidize small-scale farmers in terms of water management, fertilisers and modernisation of equipment. I mean we are an agricultural country that often relies of food reserves. It doesn’t make any sense.
So what can we look forward to in the future when it comes to Tamarind and Joseph Gacheru?
One of my key passions is training youth. At Tamarind Group, we have a rigorous apprentice programme which runs for 18 months. We take in approximately 16 out of hundreds of applicants [Gacheru mentions that they will only see applicants who have gone to college, which is a sign of their commitment]. There is a high turnover no doubt but we are left with a handful of trainees that are prepared mentally and emotionally to commit themselves to this career. Tamarind has become a training ground for the industry but at the end of the day, it is for the greater good. That is something that I feel very passionate about.