IT expert dumps computers for kitchen
IN a serene compound somewhere off Peponi Road in Nairobi, two women sit facing each other, in between them is a sack full of indigenous vegetables. They are carefully plucking the tiny leaves one by one off the narrow stems of these vegetables in preparation for cooking.
Behind the two are chunks of meat that have been hang out to dry above a smoky grill. The meat is undergoing one of the oldest food preservation methods of smoking that was common before modernisation brought about the refrigerator. Welcome to Amaica Restaurant, a traditional establishment that boasts a wide range of indegenous foods from different tribes across Kenya.
This restaurant business is the idea of 38 year old entrepreneur Pamela Muyeshi who quit her job in 2006 to promote cuisine tourism through Amaica. Amaica is derived from Luhya word for the three cooking stones Amaika that are used in a traditional kitchen set up. Today the restaurant which started with 12 employees employs 60 on permanent basis while casuals range from 100 to 500 at a time depending on the season.
It has also branched into outside catering for events. “It started by serving only Luhya food not just any local dish, before we diversified to other traditional foods,” says Pamela. Pamela who previously worked for Federation of Kenya Employers prior to starting her own business has no background training on hospitality and restaurant management whatsoever. She is a trained IT software developer but her business nonetheless has thrived thanks to the gap that was in the market for such restaurants.
“While at FKE, I used to travel a lot and most of the countries that I visited the locals there were so proud of their food and used to insist that we sample it irrespective of whether we liked it or not,” recounts Pamela. “Kenyans on the other hand have this thing of being so apologetic when a visitor comes here and does not seem to like the food.”
Pamela notes that more Kenyans should be proud of our local dishes because first there is a lot of variety and secondly, she says, by being proud of our own, there's a chance to grow cuisine and cultural tourism by arousing the interest of foreigners on traditional cuisines. “Our food is so fantastic and that is why when most of us go out of the country for say two to three days, we can't wait to get back home to eat our own food,” remarks the petite restaurant owner.
Amaica which started with one restaurant along Ngong Road now has two outlets. The pioneer branch was moved from Ngong road to Milimani. The vision of the business reads: to be the leading contemporary Kenyan restaurant chain globally renowned for serving affordable authentic Kenyan cuisine. “Whenever FKE used to get visitors from abroad, it was hard finding them a good place to sample traditional dishes. Most of the available places were dingy places that you are not even proud to present to guests,” explains Pamela.
When Amaica therefore was established, it was an instant hit with foreigners most of whom were brought in by their local hosts. But Pamela laments that local residents always complain about the prices on her menu, not bearing in mind the rigorous process preparing traditional food entails.
“Most of the ingredients we use here are seasonal, to get them from the different parts of the country I have had to work with various women groups and go to great lengths to acquire sufficient amounts,” she explains. At the moment, Amaica has sourced the services of about ten women groups from the eight provinces in the country to partner with them in supplying the ingredients. In each of these regions, Amaica collaborates with a group comprising between 20 to 30 women.
Whether it is aliya (smoked beef delicacy from Nyanza) Tsiswa (edible insects eaten mostly in Western Kenya and found during rainy season) or Tsisindu (quail bird that is also seasonal), Amaica will have these on the menu all year round. “Kenyans imagine that the meals should be cheaper but the truth is the cost of producing continental food is lower than producing our traditional food,” states Pamela.
For instance, preparation of the vegetables that accompany these meals is done manually and takes hours just to finish with one sack. The meat for dishes such as aliya takes up to a week or two to be properly smoked and the human labour takes time to train, says Pamela. “There is no institution that trains our cooks on how to produce our own local food. I have cooks who are Utalii trained and have worked in big hotels but when they come here they have to start as trainees!”
Consequently Pamela is using her women group partners to train her cooks on how these dishes are prepared. Utalii College, she boldly says, just scratches the surface in its course work. Utalii syllabus treats traditional cooking as a “by the way” she notes. Interesting fact about Amaica is that most of its local customers are males according to Pamela. “90 per cent of Kenyan men appreciate traditional food whether they are young or old.”
Pamela notes that most of her male customers sometimes joke about her teaching their women how to cook such traditional meals.
At first she used to just laugh about it but as she has now opened a bigger restaurant along Peponi road that has a beautiful big garden and a larger kitchen, Pamela has seen another business opportunity.
“I have decided to open a cooking school here to teach women how to prepare these foods,” reveals Pamela. “Tourists who come here are also showing strong interest in getting to know how these foods are prepared and so the cooking school will be very ideal.” With her success story that is Amaica, the software developer turned restaurant has found her forte. With her menu themed 'a gourmet journey through Kenya', this businesswoman is set to transform cuisine tourism and while at it, is also poised for personal success in an area few have dared to venture.