Food & Drinks

Chef Dennis charts new culinary path


Embark Restaurant development chef Dennis Angani during the photo session at the Karen establishment on January 13, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

It is the narrative, not the place’ reads the signboard outside Embark Restaurant off Ngong Road in Karen. The tiny restaurant that seats only 12 people on a semi-open veranda is nestled in a beautiful garden.

Here, proprietor and head chef, Dennis Ang’ani, has embarked on a gastronomic voyage of small, imaginative, five-course meals with no menus and served al fresco.

Some might say the restaurant serves elevated African foods. The meals are certainly based on African ingredients from around the continent. However, Dennis, 29, wants to communicate something more, to touch his clients at a non-physical level.

“I’m trying to inspire wonder, create meals with a witty edge but also outside the range you would expect. An unfamiliar familiarity,” he says, giving the example of the ugali and spinach dessert. “It is close enough to grasp and yet still unfamiliar.”

Born and raised in Kenya, a childhood love of soccer brought Dennis to the kitchen. He wanted to quit after primary school and become a professional football player.

“I loved the sport for the play, sportsmanship, and teamwork,” says Dennis. His father, who was partly raised in Germany, understood his sports ambition but his mother prevailed upon him to finish his formal education.

At 16 years old he watched a TV cooking show and was instantly captivated. “I thought, this is like a football pitch. The head chef is like the coach, the sous chef is the captain, and so on.” Dennis had never cooked in his life but promptly decided to become a professional chef.

In 2011 he enrolled in culinary arts at IHTI (International Hotel and Tourism Institute). But on the first day, he was so intimidated, having never spent any time in the kitchen, that he could only wash dishes. Determined to overcome his fears, Dennis started showing up at school hours in advance “to do stuff in the kitchen” which greatly boosted his confidence.

Working as a trainee cook at the Tribe Hotel under former head chef Luca Molteni, further inspired dreams. “Chef Molteni walked the talk, he knew everything about the kitchen and I wanted to operate at that level,” says Dennis.

After graduating, he gained more experience working in Kenya, Europe, and North America, but always planned to come home. His vision was to open “a small, creative restaurant that had a soul.” However, finding suitable business partners and figuring out the business side was complicated.

“I did not want to partner with anybody that might dilute my dream and vision,” he said. “Too many chefs in Kenya today are uninspiring and in it for the wrong reasons – money or 15 seconds of fame. It cheapens the whole craft.” He chose to go it alone.

To save money, Dennis catered privately for high-end clientele for four years. He also hosted pop-up events on Saturdays at rented premises, cooking 12 courses for 12 guests with different weekly menus.

This was the genesis of Embark which he and his fiancée, Yasmin, opened in March 2020. Unfortunately, it closed two weeks later due to the Covid-19 lockdown, incurring heavy losses in the process. Undaunted, Dennis remodelled the premises and reopened them in November 2020.

The majority of the patrons, says Dennis, are excited by the menu-less dining model but a few people are “quick to give their opinions without first understanding certain things.” Still, Embark can cater to special dietary needs with advance notice.

Meals usually start with an amuse-bouche (appetiser) such Kiwi fruit soaked in juice and cold-brewed coffee, with whipped cream and roasted button mushrooms. You may get a Fish Shiro Soup, inspired by spiced Ethiopian chickpea flour. Or a cup of clear blue fish broth with spirulina seaweed and a codfish croquette.

Next could be bamboo-smoked trout, ostrich steak with cremini mushrooms, or chicken thighs in a spicy berebere sauce. Non-meat items include red eggplants braised in Baileys liqueur and honey, or mini plantain burgers.

A meal could end with vegetable-based desserts, cheesecake from traditionally fermented mursik, or ice cream flavoured with butternut or beetroot.

The wine selection, handled by Yasmin, deliberately avoids supermarket brands as Dennis believes you cannot give the best experience by saving on costs. The average meal is about Sh5,000 excluding drinks.

“Save on wastage, not cost.”

[email protected]