Food & Drinks

Theo's fast rise at a New York's exclusive two-star Michelin restaurant

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Theo Ouya is a junior sous chef in New York's 2 star Michelin restaurant, Momofuku Ko. FILE PHOTO | POOL

Theo Ouya has a journey filled with flavours, scents and delightful tastes to please global palates.

On completion of high school at Peponi School in Ruiru, he attended the Culinary Arts Academy in Switzerland in 2018 where he graduated with first-class honours.

Now, pizza is his expertise.

“I can’t explain my love for pizza but I've always been very good at working with flour. I’ve had the opportunity to and I enjoyed it. Since I was young, I have always enjoyed cooking,” explains Ouya.

“From there {Academy} I met some inspiring people through culinary studies, many of whom are my best friends to this day, and they are the main reason that it felt so easy falling completely into the world of food.”

Ouya joined a pizza programme at Momofuku Ko restaurant in New York at the age of 22, in July 2019. Momofuku Ko is a 2-star Michelin restaurant, renowned for its excellent food.

“I didn’t have any connections at the restaurant, nor did I even have a close friend in the city at the time. I just persistently sent emails, and made phone calls to a handful of the best restaurants in New York, I remained hopeful. In July, things happened for me. I got my foot in the door, and after a day spent in the kitchen, they let me stay.”

The programme entailed about three staple pizzas that were to be made regularly for all seasons and there were also three more different seasonal pizzas. The pizzas he learnt are specific to that restaurant.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the head chef of the restaurant, Sean Gray, had been experimenting with pizzas, using ingredients he could find within a few miles of his home in New Jersey, and a bit of sourdough starter from the restaurant. He created pizzas to entice clients to return to the restaurant after the pandemic.

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One of the staple pizzas prepared by Theo Ouya, a junior sous chef at the 2-star Michelin restaurant, Momofuku Ko. FILE PHOTO | POOL

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“When we were devising a programme to get the restaurant started again, pizza just happened to be one of the things we had on hand. We then developed the dough recipe to one that would cook well in our deck ovens, which are normally used for bread and other baked goods. So I’d say the type of pizza I make is kind of New York style, kind of sourdough style, but 100 percent Ko style,” he says.

Working at a highly-rated restaurant is very demanding.

“I am proud of my achievements. In three years I have worked from being a severely underqualified commis chef to a junior sous chef in charge of the prep kitchen staff. The challenge in such an environment is recognising the brutal honesty that comes with working in such a high-level environment,” comments Ouya.

“We worked very hard, five days a week. I learned a lot. Chef Sean Gray is my friend to this day and I will always value him as a mentor. The restaurant moulded me as a chef, and I am forever grateful.”

Commis chefs are novice chefs who work to support a chef de partie in a commercial kitchen. They perform cooking, cleaning, delivery, and other support duties as instructed by the chef de partie.

Commis chefs help ensure that a kitchen's operations run smoothly.

A sous-chef is a chef who is second in command in a kitchen; the person ranking next to the head chef, usually, the more hands-on manager with regards to training staff and organising the kitchen.

“We would sell roughly 30 pizzas on weekdays, and upwards of 50 on weekends. At our busiest point in December 2020, this would involve roughly 40 kilogrammes of dough made daily, and with the relatively small mixers we had at the time, this could mean about 3 rounds of mixing for just one day of dough. All the dough saw 2-3 days of proofing to build gluten structure and improve flavour,” he explains.

While on holiday in Kenya, he worked at Cultiva in Karen, for a short period on a project to revamp their pizza programme.

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Theo joined a pizza programme at Momofuku Ko restaurant in New York which entailed the preparation of about three staple pizzas regularly for all seasons. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

“We adapted the dough recipe to work for their wonderful handmade pizza oven, and put a couple of Ko pizzas, as well as 2 originals on the menu,” states Ouya.

“I have received feedback from people who have dined at the restaurant and eaten one of the pizzas which are still on the menu;”

Ouya’s culinary journey has traversed through different palates from Switzerland, Nairobi, and New York inclusive of making a cocktail for Alain Berset, the President of the Swiss Confederation.

“The cocktail I made for the Swiss President is one of my precious memories, at age 21. He was on an official visit to Kenya and he drank my cocktail!” Ouya excitedly explained.

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“I made a whiskey sour which is a mix of a bourbon whiskey, infused with black tea from my uncle’s farm in Kericho. I also added some coconut oil to reduce the harsh flavours of the tea. It was infused with local honey for sweetness and some lemon juice to balance it out. He told me it was quite delicious and shook my hand!”

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