If Simon Wanjau were a pebble in a board game, he would be the die that rests in a precise position when rolled. Almost in a mystical fashion, the former executive chef at InterContinental Hotel has sometimes made delicate decisions at equally delicate circumstances, surviving even when drowning was certain.
At 39, the owner of Kobbis Oven in Thika and Ruiru is at the peak of his life: family, fortune and in a relentless pursuit of fulfilment.
When he left the InterContinental Hotel last year to run the family business, he had been in the industry for 20 years. The father of two had worked at Norfolk, Fairview, Hilton Jumeirah in Dubai and Hotel Cardoso in Mozambique.
Arguably, privilege has contributed to his journey. First, his family was well established in the hospitality space. Secondly, his father was a pioneer lecturer at Kenya Utalii College.
“My father didn’t want me to become a chef. After college, he put me under the training of Eamon Mullan at Norfolk Hotel. The Irish executive chef was revered by those who worked with him, and was known to cut chefs down to size,” he says.
Eighteen months working with no pay was designed to discourage him from pursuing his culinary inclinations. Ironically, this experience hardened him.
His last role at Intercontinental Hotel as the executive chef for seven years was a head-spinning job. Foremost, he drove for 100 kilometres to work and clocked 15 hours daily for six days.
With neither friends nor a social life, Simon felt he was staring into an existential black hole. He quit.
That’s easier to say than do, I probe. “My wife had been running a small bakery from home since 2016. This had grown into a bakery in Thika and by 2018 we had a confectioneries shop at the Spur Mall in Ruiru.” Simon would help to deliver cakes sometimes, so when he resigned, his wife gladly took him in. This partnership spared him the agony of a fresh start.
Boasting infinite experience, running the business —which had a steady cash flow and an established clientele base —was as easy as making a sandwich for him. Within the next 14 months, Kobbis Oven would be on a growth curve. Simon was now happier and closer to his young family. “I even wished I’d left employment earlier.”
When the coronavirus came, the nirvana was disrupted. The business took a blow by the chin when schools closed and employers sent their workers home. Even though the couple has retained five of their staff, revenue has been on a catastrophic dip, managing only 15 per cent.
To Simon, this wasn’t unexpected. “Cake, ice cream and coffee are luxuries. Most people are more worried about survival,” he says.
“We can’t survive beyond six months because our customers will likely have exhausted their savings.” He may have invented new family-oriented products and adopted creative marketing techniques to survive the violent tide, but Simon fears things could get worse. “This investment is my family's legacy plan. It has to survive,” he says.
Does he feel leaving employment was to jump right into the furnace? Not at all, he says. This situation isn't entirely unfamiliar to him. Simon worked in Lagos at the height of the Ebola in 2017, and is now, somewhat, hardwired to deal with crises. “The risk of infection was extremely high. My daughter was only three years at the time and I couldn't imagine contracting the virus,” he recalls.
His adventure-filled career is full of fond memories, including setting up a bush breakfast at the Nairobi National Park for the Seychellois president on a rainy morning in 2017.
Anxiety, he tells me, overwhelms the kitchen at the most critical moments. “When the guest of the night is Barack Obama, the unease is tenfold. Pressure surges and tempers flare.”
It’s then that even the most unusual gaffes occur. Simon calls these “kitchen situations.” “We were hosting former US President Obama for a state dinner during his visit in 2015. The guest list had 400 dignitaries. Owing to the sensitive nature of the visit, our staff, lab technicians, engineers and equipment had to be at the venue ten hours earlier.”
Everything had to be done with split-second precision. But the unexpected happened. “We got one plate (course) wrong,” he recounts of the night of long knives. “We had to redo all the 400 plates fast. Thankfully, we had been drilled multiple times in readiness for any mishap on the night.”
Apart from that scare and a plate that flew into one of the staff’s face, all else went according to script.
There were embarrassing moments too. “We lost power just when we had finished setting up at a state dinner during former President Mwai Kibaki's time,” Simon recalls.
“I was in the kitchen with about 100 staff when the blackout happened. It lasted only about 20 seconds but it felt like an entire hour. Anything could happen during that brief moment of extreme confusion.”
Simon is the guy who stays sane in a storm when everyone else loses their cool. This composure has been invaluable in running his own kitchen. “I’m able to calm nerves and show direction when everyone panics.”
I turn to lessons from his culinary tours. How does the food scene here compare with elsewhere? “I’m yet to find any Kenyan food or dessert that’s authentically ours, creative and flavourful enough to blow me away,” he says.
“When you’re in Kenya, you don’t realise how shallow our food is; until you visit Nigeria, Mozambique and South Africa.”
For someone who’s spent two decades sampling food around the world, it’s difficult to disbelieve him.
“Unlike Nigerians who have indigenous plantain recipes, for instance, the majority of our dishes have Indian, Arabian and European influences.