Kiran Jethwa: Meet Kenya’s celebrity TV chef

Kiran Jethwa, executive chef, Sevens Seafood and Grill. FILE
Kiran Jethwa, executive chef, Sevens Seafood and Grill. FILE 

You can call him a celebrity chef, if you want. That’s what all enthused journalists call him anyway. But I doubt – given his somewhat humbling predisposition – that he would exactly revel in that word “celebrity” even in light of his “successes”. (He doesn’t like to associate himself closely with that word either).

But all semantics aside, Kiran has done well for himself. There are the two distinguished fine dining premium restaurants – Sevens Seafood and Grill at ABC Place and Sevens Grill and Lounge in Village Market.

There is his well-acclaimed TV shows - Tales from the Bush Larder – running on Zuku, a culinary travel show where he travels the region and beyond, through hamlets and the African thicket, cooking with locals and using their ingredients.

In the show, he will eat anything from cow blood, mud crabs, guinea fowl eggs and grasshoppers. The show is such a hit that National Geographic bought it, the first local TV show to be exported to the international market. Doesn’t that sound like success?

How is your personality or temperament similar to the restaurants you own?

Well, I believe that if you are going to do something, you just have to do it properly. Like my restaurants, I pay attention to detail. I’m also an extremely impatient person, totally intolerant to others’ mistakes.

I enjoy pleasing people, I’m an entertainer. When I’m out with my friends having drinks, I’m always the loudest. I believe business is an extension of one’s personality.

During your Bush Larder series, what is the one thing you have learnt about our local cuisines?

(Pause) First there is a fantastic variety of food people don’t know about in Kenya. I wouldn’t exactly say I learnt this, but it’s something I’ve always known, the problem was how to find it. I have had a greater appreciation of our local farmers and fishermen and what they have to do to make us eat.

It’s hard work and yet most people are unaware of this, or do not appreciate it. We are embarking on the third series, which will take me to SA, Zambia and Mozambique…if the war abates.

How does Kenyan cuisine distinguish itself from other African cuisines?

It doesn’t. But there are two distinctions here; the cuisine and the ingredients. In terms of ingredients, it’s world class. But we lack creativity to do much with it.

We should be more experimental, but to our credit, although Nairobi is capable of doing this, the rest of the country faces other financial challenges to engage in this.

You are a third generation Kenyan of an Indian dad and an English mom. Which lineage dominates you and why do you think so?

I sit on the fence on that. I don’t speak Gujarati well, neither do I understand it any better. I think from my Indian side I borrow the cooking. (Pause).

My influences are jumbled up. None really dominates. But I’m more Kenyan than anything else. My Kiswahili is 85 per cent fluent, the grammar might be bad but a lot of Kenyans’ are worse. (Smiles).

So do you dream in English or in your little Gujarati?

(Smiles) Definitely in English.

What is the most complaint and compliment you get here at Sevens Seafood and Grill?

That it’s too noisy inside. And this is from the elderly customers. When designing the place, we didn’t get the acoustics right, but I guess you can’t always get everything right in business.

But any other complaint we fix immediately. The compliment we get is the food and service, our customers love the experience.

Going by chef shows we watch on TV, most chefs are insufferable jackasses. Are you?

First, the stuff on TV is hyped. It’s all for entertainment so do not believe it. Nobody throws puns and epithets that much. However, being a chef is a high-pressure environment, what with demanding customers and little wiggling room.

This environment creates this type of person you are talking about; intolerant to mistakes, abrasive and abrupt. Sometimes you find yourself embracing it.

I don’t enjoy cracking the whip, but sometimes I have to. I always say if you find yourself throwing pans and abuses in the kitchen, something is fundamentally wrong.

What emotion does success evoke in you?

I don’t consider myself successful. This is just the first step to other things I want to do.

Like what?

I have a food production company in Industrial area called Good Food that makes pre-packaged food. Ideal for busy urban dwellers who don’t have time to cook. Then there is more TV work coming up that I can’t talk about now.

You keep insane hours; I read that from your earlier interviews. How do you exhale?

I work six days a week, 12 hours a day, on a minimum. I gym daily at home. I find it relaxing. I don’t watch TV, don’t even own one. The only time I listen to music is when I’m at the gym. (Grins). I don’t get time to read a book. But I’m a lover of fishing, birding and when I can, I go for long walks at Karura Forest with my two dogs.

What breed are they?

Alaskan Malamutes. (Shows me a picture from his phone).

They look like wolves!

Yes, but they are useless guard dogs. They are not vicious, just friendly house dogs. They are the closest to wolves any breed can be. I bought them from SA and they are the only ones of their kind in East Africa as we speak. I also have two cats.

Do you pray before you eat?

I’m not religious. I think religion only serves to segregate people as evidenced in the world’s affairs. And I never want to be a part of that. My religion is decanted in one belief; whatever you do, it comes right back at you. If you do it to others, it shall be done to you.

Your three top rated restaurants in Nairobi, apart from yours, of course?

Hashmi’s at Nakumatt Ukay. Simple and excellent food. Pango at Fairview Hotel, excellent service. Furusato Restaurant, not much of ambience but food is always what it should be.

You are dying today. What’s the last meal you would ask for?

That’s easy. My mother makes an Indian dish called dal, with goat’s bones, rather the marrow from the bones served with rice or naan.

Would you like to wash it down with a drink, perhaps?

Sure, why not. (Thinks). Champagne. Not suitable for the meal, but hey, I might as well; I’m dying after all.