What Cooking Has Taught Me About The World

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Hai Afrika came across a unique profile that shows great culinary potential. And, true enough, we were spot on.

Meshack Omondi is a humble yet passionate chef who has travelled to a few of the world’s most interesting places for a chef to be. The places include South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kabul, Afghanistan, and others.

Read below the story of Meshack, our Chef Extraordinaire.

 

Meshack Omondi

I was born in July 1984 in Nairobi, Kenya, and raised in Buru Buru and Umoja estates on the east side of Nairobi. This is where I ran and played football barefoot, got dirty when it rained, learned “*sheng” — and still am, as new words are still coming out. This is where I got mugged by street kids (“chokoras”) when I was walking alone near the railways and had my new watch stolen and my tooth knocked out in the process. This is where we went swimming in a swamp and fishing for tadpoles thinking that they were some kind of fish (Dufa Mpararo). This is where we would queue to get a ride on the neighbour’s bike because we didn’t have one. We bounced off tyres and did mid air flips and landed on sand. Oh, what a life. Who wouldn’t want to go back to the good old childhood days? Then came high school, wasn’t very exciting for me but I did pretty well there.

To be or not to be a lawyer

After high school, I wanted to be a lawyer, so I applied to join Law School. As I was waiting for their reply, I decided to try my hand at cooking. Having done a bit of woodwork in high school, I was good with my hands, so I gave it a go.

I fell in love and haven’t looked back ever since. In the end, the Law School never replied. I ended up joining culinary school in 2004, went through two rigorous industrial internships at high-end restaurants and hotels, and graduated at the top of my class in 2006 . It was a great achievement for me.

I landed my first job in Juba, South Sudan, right after I finished my second internship. This was in 2006. I stayed in South Sudan for two and a half years, and during this time I managed to run a kitchen and train the locals on various cuisines so that they would be able to take over when I’m gone.

Heading back home

In 2009, I left Sudan to come back home to Kenya and got a job at the coast, at the Tamarind Restaurant. It was a very high-end, very busy marathon service. I remember one time we didn’t have any clients over for lunch, but as I was almost leaving for my break, I got called back. Some guests had walked in. Those initial five guests turned to 80 — what an afternoon that was! I went for my break at 4.30pm and came back at 6pm, and ended up serving 100 guests for dinner. By the time I was looking up at the clock it was 11.30pm. That day was hectic, and in all that commotion and pressure, time really flies.

I was casual chef at the Tamarind for a month because. Afterwards, I got an offer back in Nairobi at a boutique hotel known as The House of Waine. There, I was the head chef. I held this position from 2010 to 2012.

Our menus were unique, as each member of the team had to come up with a dish which would go through a taste test. If it passed the taste test and got approved, it would go into the menu. During my time there, I really learnt a lot about menu planning and creativity in general.

Off to More Adventures

My next adventure led me to Park Star Hotel at the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan. It was my first time to see snow and experience minus zero temperatures, something that I wasn’t really prepared for, but I embraced the new experience.

Here, I worked with chefs from Bangladesh, Kenya, and Afghanistan. What amazed me was the will of the Afghan chefs to learn and be taught, which made my experience there all the more memorable.

Remember that those were times of war. I experienced the shelling of Kabul city for a straight 18 hours. It was the longest day of my life.

People keep asking me what draws me to all these unusual places that are known to be politically unstable, and I usually tell them the same thing: It was the sense of adventure.

I spent five months in the war-torn city before moving on to my next adventure.

Kabul, Afghanistan by Nnara

Kabul, Afghanistan by Nnara

Next was the Democratic Republic of Congo. I worked for a catering company, and we were contracted to do catering for a mining company. Compared to the other places I had been to, The DRC was more like a home away from home because the language spoken there was Swahili — there was no language barrier.

I was the Head Chef there for two and a half years. The experience exposed me to Congolese cuisine I had never known before. The local food was so amazing that you could bite your fingers off as you enjoy them.

At the moment, my travels have brought me to Puntland State of Somalia where I work as a Facilities Manager. Nonetheless, I still dabble in the kitchen, especially when I travel back home for my break. I make sure I go hard and do it to my best ability.

All these places I have been fortunate enough to visit have taught me a lot of things. They have broadened my palate and taught me to appreciate the diverse cuisines and cultures out there. And the best part is that I can share these experiences with everyone with my cooking.

Nairobi City Street - Xiaojun Deng

Nairobi City Street – Xiaojun Deng

Learning from experiences

No matter where I go, the thing that always brings me back home to Kenya is my fiancee. I am fortunate enough to have that special someone to go home to.

Different parts of Kenya most definitely have their own unique foods. At the coast, we have Biriyani and Pilau which are common dishes in the coastal area. At the Eastern part of Kenya, we have Muthokoi (boiled beans and maize). At Nyanza we have Obambla (sun-dried fish). And there are many more!

Social media has come a long way in showing the world what one can do. In my case, I know that this opportunity will help me show the world what I am made off, what I can do. It will help me share my experiences and my vision of what East Africa has to offer — things that people do not get to see on TV. I believe that this is what I can offer to the world.

Nyama Choma, a local delicacy by Obambla

Nyama Choma, a local delicacy by Obambla

*Sheng is a Swahili-based cant, perhaps a mixed language or creole, originating among the urban underclass of Nairobi, Kenya, and influenced by many of the languages spoken there.