Food & Drinks

Kenyan Chef on Opening 5-Star Kitchen in Congo


Kenyan chef Dismas Mkabana who works at Goma Serena Hotel in DRC. PHOTO | POOL

When Serena opened a five-star hotel in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Dismas Mkabana, a Kenyan chef was tasked with setting up its kitchen.

Even with 16 years of experience in Serena, establishing a five-star kitchen in Goma was one of his greatest challenges. His biggest headache was getting staff because there are few hospitality institutions in Goma, resulting in a big shortage of trained talent.

“Some of my staff went to culinary school just for one or two hours a day with no practical work, only theory,” he says.

Besides himself, the pastry chef and one sous chef, the entire kitchen team is Congolese. Consequently, he has had to train his team from scratch, to bring them up to Serena standards.

“Slowly we are imparting the knowledge and we shall reach there.”

Finding quality ingredients is another difficulty. Though Congo is a very fertile country the agricultural sector is still underdeveloped.

“The local suppliers do not have what it takes in terms of finesse, quality, storage, hygiene but we are trying to get them to understand what we need and why the food has to be grown and handled in a certain way,” says Dismas.

Apart from pineapple, paw-paw and watermelon, Dismas has to order most fruits from Rwanda or Uganda. Most vegetables are also obtained from across the borders such as bell peppers, spinach, and different types of salads.

Seafood is sourced from a Ugandan supplier and the bacon, sausages, and fine meats come in from Kenya.

Without food imports, inconsistencies in service arise and “guests complain when we run out of the imported items,” he says.

The language barrier also presents another challenge. Congo is a French-speaking country, although some people in eastern DRC speak Kiswahili.

But despite the challenges, Goma Serena, which has 109 rooms, has been serving holidaymakers since September 2020. It is built on the shores of Lake Kivu in eastern DRC.

As the executive chef, Dismas’ desire to cook started in childhood.

“As a third born in a family of four boys, sometimes we were left home and we had no option but to cook for ourselves. My sister was born much later,” says Dismas, who grew up in Western Kenya.

“We had a cooking timetable, but everyone seemed to look forward to my meals.”

After high school, he knew joining the Kenya Utalii College to study food production would be path to being a chef.

Being among the 20 students to join the college out of the 1,000 applicants was not easy. On the third attempt, he succeeded and enrolled in 2005.

Dismas joined Nairobi Serena Hotel as a commis (junior) chef in 2007 and has been with the company ever since. Over the years, he has expanded his experience by working in various Serena properties in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Mozambique. In 2020, he was appointed executive chef of Goma Serena.

Dismas admits that getting to the top has come with some sacrifice.

“In this industry, you have little time to be with your family and there is always pressure at work.”

“This is not a soft life or an industry for people with no virtues, but it is a doable career,” says Dismas, adding that one needs to be a quick thinker, to bring new ideas, and be aware of food trends to beat competitors.

Best meals

Keeping track of guests’ preferences is key in delivering the best dining experiences.

One of the busiest periods since the hotel’s opening was the Kenya DRC Trade Mission conference in December 202, which I attended. As a foreigner, the hotel serve both African and international dishes.

“On my menu, you never lack mzuzu, which is plantain bananas, and here they eat a lot of fish such as whole grilled tilapia,” says Dismas.

Another delicacy in DRC is the small sambaza fish from Lake Kivu, also known as sardines.

His menu always has a choice of traditional greens such amaranth (mchicha), cassava leaves (sombe) slow-cooked in palm oil and peanuts, or mboga vichungu, a sour-tasting local vegetable.

Other typical Congolese foods he prepares are maole (arrowroots), vijumba (sweet potatoes), and matoke (bananas.)

I particularly liked the Poulet a la Mwambe which is chicken cooked with peanut sauce.

“The difference with Kenyan food is not that much but Congolese dishes are normally rich with sauces and peanuts,” says Dismas.