Catherine Kariuki, a pastry chef has worked in some of the world’s leading luxury hotels and resorts. Now at Nairobi’s Trademark and Tribe hotels, she was previously at Atlantis, Armani at Burj Khalifa and Four Seasons in Dubai.
The list of her guests reads like the cast of a high-octane movie: cultural, political and business leaders, including the Sheikh of Dubai, American rapper Bobby V (formerly Bobby Valentino) and Everton striker Theo Walcott.
Catherine though moves her finger over these names with near stoic impassiveness, as though this were effortless. When she emerges from the kitchen for this interview, the food and beverage graduate from Technical University of Kenya is edgy. She is wearing a navy blue apron, a gift from Walcott, she says.
Catherine, 34, is one of only a handful of Kenyan trained pastry chefs. Her journey started eight years ago, before she left for Cape Town and later Dubai, where she worked for five years.
I’m curious to understand why she preferred to come back to Kenya to working abroad where there’s more money and better exposure.
“We’re still fairly underdeveloped in this area. I felt the need to come back home and contribute the specialised skills I had acquired abroad to the local pastry industry.”
She adds that being a pastry chef in Kenya and elsewhere in the world is virtually similar.
“In this type of job, you must put in long hours. Professionals work in shifts mostly.”
It’s on the experience front that Kenya lags behind, she observes.
“Infrastructure at local hotels falls short of global standards,” she says.
Catherine is the hotel’s creative engine, responsible for developing new menus.
“I ensure that our food is of high quality, meets hygiene standards and is safe. It’s my duty to check the vegetables, fruits and other supplies from our suppliers,” she says.
She manages a team of 22, responsible for breakfast, lunch and dinner, both banquet and à la carte meals.
As such, her job involves oscillating between Trademark and Tribe hotels to get things moving. Hers is a role that demands wisdom, toughness, and, above all else, passion, she notes. ‘‘This is a high pressure job. As team leader, you must stay calm and show direction during crises. Some people may undermine you, but you must remain firm.’’
Catherine does not make pastries at home or at private parties. Her skills are to work exclusively, from dawn to dusk, for six days. Sometimes she is on duty for up to 16 hours, with one off-day per week.
With such a compact schedule, what does she do for personal development and when?
“I’ve learnt to utilise my off-days to the max. I read a lot. I read fashion magazines, newspapers and cookery books. I also love reality TV. Real Housewives of Atlanta is my favourite,” she says, adding “sometimes I sleep all day. It’s so refreshing.”
Even so, she spares an hour every day to work out at either of the two hotels’ gym facilities.
She may spend 85 per cent of her days in an apron and distasteful slip kitchen shoes, but Catherine is a stylish woman, with a penchant for clothes, shoes and sportswear. In her wardrobe, she has several pairs of shoes by Jimmy Choo and Zara.
Catherine has been married 12 years now. Most of her marriage life has been spent away from her husband, a South African who works in Dubai. The couple has a seven-year-old daughter whom lived with her paternal grandparents until recently.
I ask her what it is like to be in a long-distance marriage.
“It’s very strenuous. Running a family from a sea apart is difficult. We try hard to meet once every month, which isn’t always possible,” she says.
Her husband also works in the hospitality industry.
I ask what would constitute a memorable dinner date for her.
“A crunchy calamari paired with a beautifully decorated classic cheesecake for dessert always elevates my spirit,” she says.
American confections master Antonio Bachour, named in 2011 as one of the best 10 pastry chefs in the world, is Catherine’s most admired professional. But it’s the business model of British celebrity restaurateur and food critic Gordon Ramsay that inspires her the most.
“Ramsay has an eye for good talent. Through his masterclass, he trains his team so that they can become better chefs than him, which is admirable,” she says. So, what is the mystery around pastry? Is this craft as complex as it is often storied? Catherine says pastry making is an art as much as it is a science, with inspiration coming from every day experiences.
Behind the dessert, Catherine says, are many hours of hard work, careful planning, innovativeness and frustrations.
“A dessert has to be eye-catching since human beings feast with their eyes first,” she says, adding that but they are those who do not eat beef yet gelatin which comes from beef, is a main component in pastries.
“We have to substitute it with a component called agar agar to hold the dessert firmly.”
She is always on the lookout for trends. On Instagram, she follows French, German and Arabian chefs who are her biggest inspiration.
For someone in her space, it’s only natural that she has had memorable experiences. One stands out.
“I once had a simple dessert at Armani when I was working there. It was a mixture of distilled water and some powder. It popped and melted in my mouth, releasing its multiple flavours. It was quite unlike anything I’d experienced before with desserts,” she says.
Her favourite is caramel mad pie or dolce dessert, made from white chocolate caramelised at 50 degrees Celsius for two hours. This, she says, can be used to make cake with a burnt caramel flavour.
The secret to making outstanding dessert? Adventure and fun, she replies.
“As a pastry chef, you must come out of your comfort zone and try out different recipes and tastes. Travel the world for different experiences. When I see the Chinese, Indians or Italians, I already know what they love. Nothing is as disappointing to a pastry chef as spending hours preparing dessert only for the guests to snub it,” she says.
When I ask her about Kenya’s pastry scene and the popularity of dessert, her countenance deflates.
“We don’t have a Kenyan dessert, do we? Dessert isn’t a luxury as most people imagine. It’s a way to make dining a pleasant experience. We have a long way to go,” she says.
When the lights go out after her career, Catherine hopes to run her own bakery, either in Nairobi or in Johannesburg.
“I find South Africans’ style of pastries very stimulating. It’s something I want to learn from them one day.”
Lunch is calling and, already, Catherine is fidgety. I insist, however, to ask her what her favourite quote is as we wrap up. Hers is from Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson:
“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes —then learn how to do it later.”