“You’re evil…mad…a villain,” a disgruntled restaurant owner once told me, upon learning that I had referred to his food as ‘rancid’ after spending the better half of the week at home, sitting next or on the toilet, rocking my dishevelled hair, asking myself why I had ingested that dark and stormy dish of curdled slob.
If this world was a bestselling comic who’s pages were graced by heroes and villains, the heroes would be the chefs who cooked good, honest and humble food with love. The villains would be the food columnists and critics, the social media bloggers who are always quick to troll and harass, yet can’t tell a tilapia fillet from a salmon steak.
My culinary journey in Kenya that began four years ago has been an interesting and privileged one, filled with copious amounts of delicious soul-warming food and new friendships with like-minded food-loving individuals. There were however moments where I battled with my conscience – if my experience is bad, do I write the truth and potentially harm someone’s business?
Calling anyone’s food ‘rancid,’ ‘mediocre’ or ‘uninspiring’ is never enjoyable. As the youngest daughter to a former restaurateur in Canada, I would never wish to be on the receiving end of such criticism.
My father was the chef-owner of a successful neighbourhood bistro in Toronto. Though he sold it soon after I was born thirty years ago, there was never a single day that I wasn’t reminded of his dedication and passion for his restaurant.
From handcrafted stained glass chandeliers that lit the restaurant with ambience repurposed in my childhood home, to the dusty signage sitting in the back of the garage – I knew my father would never let go because he had poured a tremendous amount of himself into the business and undoubtedly, the restaurant was a reflection of him as an individual.
Understandably, when a restaurant is an extension of you, receiving tough constructive criticism will naturally be met with defensive mechanisms and perhaps spur motivation to do better, or not. Likewise, receiving praise is like a pat on the back, a gesture of appreciation. What I’ve learned during my culinary journey in Kenya is that it’s important to be as objective, vivid, real and mercilessly honest in food media – that’s the only way to help shape Nairobi into one of the world’s great international culinary destinations with competitive offerings to boot.
The notoriously cutthroat Nairobi restaurant scene became even more competitive in 2014, when a slew of international chefs and homegrown talent joined the fight for a slice of the lucrative pie. International brands like Caramel, Ocean Basket, Domino’s Pizza, Snack Attack and Soi joined in the knife sharpening, whilst fearless new entrants like Mambo Italia, Churrasco Gaucho, Dari, Adega and Four Café added to the diversity. Yet despite the plethora of restaurants and a greater choice than possibly anywhere else in the region, you still have to do your homework to find a good meal in Nairobi. But when you do though, it’s likely to be magnificent.
In the exuberant and fickle restaurant scene in Nairobi, new restaurants continue to open and culinary trends from all over the world are quickly adopted. Kenya’s capital is certainly growing into its food-loving reputation. With about fifty restaurants participating in Nairobi Restaurant Week 2015 just around the corner, Nairobi continues to surprise me with its determination to thrive in its journey in becoming an internationally recognised foodie hotspot. So as we settle into 2015, will you join me on this culinary journey in Nairobi? Will you help me celebrate the heroes of this industry? If your answer is yes, then start making your reservations. Happy eating.