Cultiva Kenya, a restaurant in Nairobi’s Karen, is revolutionising food habits with its style of farm-to-fork meals. It started as a pop-up eatery in 2019, and now has a loyal following of foodies.
“When I came to Nairobi, I didn’t see concepts like this, and I thought, this could be interesting to start here,” says Ariel Moscardi, the co-founder, who comes from Ecuador.
Food sustainability and crop conservation are the drivers behind Moscardi’s farm-sourced philosophy.
The journey of Cultiva goes back seven years to Ecuador. After training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu school in Mexico, Moscardi started a catering business in Ecuador in 2014, hosting up to 1,000 people.
His grandmother is a ‘seed saver’, part of a network of communities committed to preserving agricultural diversity and local crop varieties.
“My grandmother helped me with varieties of seeds for growing micro-greens and edible flowers to make my catering company,” says Moscardi.
His small farm expanded as demand grew for their organic and heirloom vegetables, and soon Cultiva was born.
“Cultiva means cultivating good practices, awareness, community, health and fun products.”
Moscardi met his current business partner, Peter Silvester, a second-generation Kenyan and proprietor of Royal African Safaris, while catering to Silvester’s clients on private yacht holidays in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. He supplied fresh produce from his farm, packed it into crates and sent it by plane to the yacht holidays.
After a visit to Kenya in 2017, he brought the ‘sourced-from-farm’ catering concept to Silvester’s mobile safaris in 2018.
“I created a little farm kitchen in Nairobi for pre-prepared food. We did not use plastics or take anything unnecessary from the field, reducing the waste,” he says.
A year later, he came up with the idea of bringing Cultiva to Nairobi.
“I thought it is not fair that we are doing this for the American visitors and Kenyans are not experiencing this.”
Although Silvester was doubtful that the concept would take up, Moscardi opened the restaurant in 2019 with a small kitchen and five tables, made from old oil drums he found at the Karen property that is the base for the safaris.
Initially, they opened once or twice a week, serving hamburgers, Chinese dim sum and whatever ingredients available at the in-house farm.
The idea caught on rapidly among customers, helped by social media and word-of-mouth.
After four months they closed for renovations, expanded the kitchen and seating area, and relaunched in August 2019 for Cultiva ‘Season Two.’
“Our staff grew from three to 35, and some of our farmers and builders stayed on to become sector heads,” said Moscardi.
The restaurant has a rustic, partly outdoor ambience with a greenhouse design, lots of potted plants, and quirky hand-washing sinks balanced on bicycles.
Inside, there is a greenhouse with micro-greens, massive red cabbages, black kale, bright green Romanesco broccoli, nasturtium and other edible flowers. A brood of indigenous chickens in a large coop lays eggs for the restaurant while a pair of pigs in a pen is fed on the kitchen’s organic waste, part of the zero-waste policy that Cultiva aims for.
On the open-view kitchen counter, I noticed baskets of heirloom tomatoes in different colours, shapes and sizes.
“In Kenya, there are probably 50 varieties of tomatoes but we only have a few in the supermarket. Who is keeping alive all the ancestral varieties of Kenya?” says Moscardi, who is strongly against mono-cropping.
Animal bones and fish skeletons are not thrown away but used to make stocks for soups, sauces and several dishes. Moscardi even built a smoker where they smoke their sausages and legs of ham for preservation and added flavours.
A constantly-changing menu serves international, Asian and South American dishes. “We are not doing something never seen before, but tweaking a bit, presenting differently and creating our own style,” he says.
The baked camembert with a sweet fruit compote that I ordered, was served in a metal dish beautifully garnished with leafy micro-greens. Kingfish Ceviche salad, a typically South American dish, is one of their best-sellers, as are the tacos, my favourite being the Korean fried chicken taco.
The farm platter appetisers of different vegetables and finger foods, and decorated in edible flowers, are very popular.
Instead of regular French fries, they cook thin, crunchy spiral ones.
“But we will introduce slightly thicker chips because people are asking,” he says.
A wide selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes is another big client-puller. They make their mock meats, vegan chicken and even a vegan eel that tastes like real seafood.
Head Chef Khaled Allibhai took me through the process of making a vegan chicken burger from seitan, a type of gluten from all-purpose flour that has to be soaked, pressed, marinated for almost a week before cooking.
Homemade loaves of bread and pastries are made from sourdough which, I learned, is more digestible than regular bread.
“Unlike yeast, our dough proves naturally for three days which helps your body to digest better,” explained Moscardi. The soft, fluffy sourdough croissants were the best I have tasted in a long time. And I savoured a lovely date and nut bread loaf at home for many days.
Covid-19 blocked ‘Season 3’ of Cultiva when it reopened in February 2020, after yet another renovation. When restaurants closed in March because of the lockdown, Moscardi started a food delivery service called the Weekly Club, the menu offering spiced-up or new items every week.
“In the one and half years we ran the Weekly Club, we sold lots of food,” he says.
Now Moscardi is looking ahead to other ideas that were put on hold by Covid: a wine bar with a sommelier, a pizza shop, a dessert bar, and an interesting concept called the Aya Lab, a fine-dining food laboratory.
“It will be educational, with futuristic food, sustainability, a little technology, at a world-class level and speaking to customers that want experience with knowledge,” he said.