Profiles

Top chef on future of world cuisines

chef

Fairmont Mara Safari Club lead chef Dominic Songole during the interview. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • For 12 years, he has worked at Accor Group of hotels in Dubai and Kenya. He’s also worked in Italy, Greece and Iran, with multiple cookery awards under his belt.
  • Dominic argues that while the country has made strides to have global offerings “there’s still a lot of ground to cover.”
  • Elsewhere in the world, food creates a stir and chefs are revered. Not so here, he laments. “We undermine our cooks in Kenya. Among professionals, chefs are considered inferior.”


For the 22 years Dominic Songole has worked as a chef, his fireplace has never gone cold. Until Covid-19 rocked last year.

For more than 15 months, the lead chef at Fairmont Mara Safari Club has been sitting out the pandemic, like hundreds of others in the hospitality industry.

Business has begun crawling out of the woodwork, with hotels, camps and lodges in Kenya opening, some for the first time in more than fourteen months. Dominic’s hearth is alight, and so is his stubborn smirk that he flushes nearly as casually as confidently.

But with the changing fortunes, and even more promise, the chef thinks the food space will have to change course to survive post-pandemic.

“We need to be more innovative in the kinds of dishes we prepare. We can’t continue to present food as before.”

Flavours and aesthetics have to be rethought, he says.

But what’s changing, specifically?

“Before Covid-19, we were serving set-menu lunches and dinners. We realised, though, that these options were limited. Now we’ve introduced mini buffets to allow guests to have more options. In future we will have larger displays of food and a lot of active cooking during dining.”

The pandemic is still alive, and contact is frowned upon. Is the buffet way the way to go?

“In this design, food is portioned. Instead of the usual buffet setup where patrons serve from food points, we’ll have predetermined portions, including salads that guests can pick and enjoy. This will minimise contact in the dining area.”

About food, Dominic is as versatile as he is adventurous. For 12 years, he has worked at Accor Group of hotels in Dubai and Kenya. He’s also worked in Italy, Greece and Iran, with multiple cookery awards under his belt.

“I can prepare Indian, Kenyan, South American and Asian dishes. I can prepare pastry too and all dishes, cold and hot.”

Every chef of international standing such as his must have the meal that awes them. His?

“Asian food, Chinese, sushi, Spaghetti Bolognese and Malaysian cuisine,” he says, adding that his favourite among favourites is Osobuko.

Mind-blowing

“Oso means ‘bone’ and buko is ‘whole’. The meat is cut from the shank and boiled in red wine. You eat it with risotto (rice),” he explains with a hint of Italian flourish. “It’s mind-blowing.”

Selling street food in Greece 15 years ago ranks on top of his moments of food magic. Accor Hotels was opening a Greek restaurant in Dubai, and Dominic went to Greece for three months to learn about the country’s food landscape.

“It’s a thrill to prepare everything, from spring rolls to stir fry and ice cream in the truck in front of the guests.”

Having worked in different food spaces, I’m interested to know where Kenya ranks in the global cuisine’s map.

Dominic argues that while the country has made strides to have global offerings “there’s still a lot of ground to cover.”

He observes: “Food trends in Dubai, for instance, are more evolved than here. Most diners have ‘international’ palates. In Kenya, our outlook on food is more localised. We love our dishes.”

Isn’t food what constitutes our cultural makeup?

“When you have two Kenyans in a table of 12 guests, a Kenyan offering such as ugali is mandatory. You can’t overlook their preference.”

But satisfying Indian palates is an even tougher challenge. “India is a large country. When you’re serving 10 Indians at a table, those are likely to be 10 regions in the subcontinent. Indians from Bangalore, Bombay and Goa have different tastes and preferences. As a chef, you must strive to fix something that appeals to each of these palates.”

Ultimate fulfillment

Serving imaginative foods may excite him. But it’s the diversity of diners that’s his ultimate fulfillment.

“When you prepare dinner for 10 different nationalities, you must be conscious of their flavour inclinations. You must also be at your absolute best."

In the hierarchy of importance in hotel service, the guest ranks on top, Dominic says. “The supervisor and the team follow in that order.”

Elsewhere in the world, food creates a stir and chefs are revered. Not so here, he laments. “We undermine our cooks in Kenya. Among professionals, chefs are considered inferior.”

He adds: “When people enjoy a dish abroad, they see the chef behind it. You’re respected.”

His cookery pet peeves, if any?

When cooks boil spaghetti or mince meat, he blurts out. “Pasta is like religion in Italy. They worship it the way we do nyama choma. Boiling it the wrong way is an offense.”

Five minutes in the kitchen and Dominic says he’d emerge with a meal irrespective of the ingredients available. “From a piece of potato, I can derive 20 different dishes. Be it soup, baked potato, boiled or hash brown.”

His daughters are 18 and 15. The eldest is joining university in September while the youngest is in Form Three. Any fatherhood lessons?

Plenty, he says, adding that he was raised in an all-boys household, with typical boyish mischief.

“I’ve had to learn to live with girls. Unlike boys, girls are picky about everything. I didn’t know how to shop for girls’ clothes, for instance. Whenever I see something that might interest them, I go for it.”

Does he cook for his family?

“Occasionally,” he says with a wry smile. Why not frequently? Cultural reasons, he insists. “One day, I prepared some Chinese noodles with sweet chilli and oyster sauce for my family. My kids started arguing that I was a better cook better than their mother.” For obvious reasons. Yet it’s not the kind of “food politics” Dominic wants to fan in his household, he notes. “I cook for my wife often, though.”

Local hospitality industry

On whether he sees his likeness in his girls, he says that his youngest daughter has taken after him in food inclinations.

“During lockdown, I would bake cakes for weddings. She was always there helping out. She wants to become a chef someday.”

At 43, Dominic’s desire is “to start something of my own such as a bakery. I also want to be able to provide a better life for family.”

Beyond the kitchen, Dominic is a football coach.

“I was the assistant coach for Kanyoni FC, a local team in Laikipia when I was working at Fairmont Kenya Safari Club,” he says.

He’s an active farmer too, with more than 25 acres of maize on his farm in Trans Nzoia County.

“My first born daughter pays her school fees herself by rearing chicken. We have more than 3,000 chickens at our home in Kitale.”

On leaving his job abroad to work here, Dominic notes: “The local hospitality industry is at an exciting stage in its development. I wanted to be part of this growth.”