An executive chef as tribe hotel CEO


Tribe Hotel General Manager Mike Mwangi during the interview at the Harvest Restaurant, Trademark Hotel on September 6, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

When Michael Mwangi was growing his career in professional kitchens in the US, he thought it was easier being the boss, at the front, in a suit that never got greasy.

Years on as he trades his executive chef hat for a general manager’s role in charge of a high-end hotel in Nairobi, Tribe Hotel, his perspective has changed.

“I have come to find out the front is sometimes more difficult because now you’re the face in front of the clients and the guests,” he says as we ease into an interview at the Harvest Restaurant in Trademark Hotel in Nairobi.

As a chef, memorable food is part of his strategy to lift Tribe Hotel out of the pandemic hiatus. So does the itch interfere in the kitchen strike?

“To be honest it’s tough, but I have learnt to take a step back. Our executive chef is such an amazing talent, our sous chef, a creative talent. But I’m also in a different market with different ingredients. There are things that I’m seeing here that I never worked with when I was a chef in the US. From veggies, meats, and methods of preparation. In the US, you’re working with food that’s been processed, not as organic. So, the time it takes to prepare foods here is a bit longer than what I'm used to, also some of the ingredients and spices are different,” he says.

Opening the kitchen to guests where they get to watch top chefs whip up food, as they forage leaves of fresh herbs from a pot nearby, is part of Tribe’s strategy to woo back diners.

“I’d like to say, being very modest, people talk about our food. People are constantly talking about how great our food is, they talk about our consistency, which is very important. The fact that we have an open kitchen and people can see what is being made creates excitement as well,” Michael says.

At Jiko, Tribe Hotel’s main restaurant, what rules is local ingredients. When international travellers stayed away because of Covid-19, a new kind of guest stepped into their doors: “A surge in the number of Kenyans coming to dine, sleep and enjoy the space.”

“Now we are re-introducing Jiko as a pan-African restaurant, serving familiar dishes with local ingredients. Meaning, you’ll get a coffee-rub steak, mandazi club sandwich, a mutura Yorkshire pudding.... It’s the different elements coming together, foods people have heard of but with an approachable twist. It’ll be great for the local and expatriate markets,” he says.

Michael’s influence has brought about a small revolution at Tribe Hotel. He says he is looking to give it a New York-chic-with-African-essence look and feel. “We’re also working on the expansion of Kaya, the spa into a wellness space because of everything that's going on. So, it’s mental health, pregnant women’s, a weight loss space; all infused as part of Kaya. It is bigger with more treatment rooms,” he says.

Michael’s cooking career spans 28 years. His love for the hospitality industry stems from his grandfather, he says. “He was the gentleman that raised me when my parents were away in the US. He was an amazing cook. On weekends, I’d accompany him to his lodge where I’d help make beds and peel potatoes. Then at 10 years, I went to the US,” he says. “After high school, I joined Johnson and Wales University. I thought, ‘I’ll go to a school to cook and eat food samples all day, that sounds amazing!’ And that’s how I got into the industry,” he says.

As he tries to balance luxury, local tastes and environmental friendliness, it is the farm-to-table concept that appeals to some guests. The herbs garden has somewhat added flavour to Tribe Hotel’s vibe.

The general manager says the garden came from a passion to give diners a different experience, not only from himself but the culinary team. “We now use the herbs in cocktails. It’s about the freshness of the herbs and being proud of growing some of our food,” Michael says, adding “Covid has taught us to think differently. A lot of people are looking for healthier options and the source of their food.”

In the garden, there is an assortment of everything from rosemary to thyme, mint to veggies, tomatoes, and peppers used not only in cooking but also in garnishing.

Peter Njenga, the Green Team Initiative Champion that focuses on sustainability and the rooms divisions manager, says the organic garden also has spinach, kale, spring onions, and leeks.

“We’ve got a lot of onions in the nursery bed to help keep away pests. Mixing the three crops ensures the veggies are not attacked by pests. We’ve added some mulch to help preserve water. We’ve also used goat manure which does very well with the soil, as opposed to cow manure which sometimes comes with weeds,” he says.

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