A lawyer who owns The Collective Restaurant

aicha mane the cofounder of The Collective restaurant in Nairobi.
Aicha Mane the cofounder of The Collective restaurant in Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

I’m at The Collective on a Saturday afternoon to meet Aicha Mane, the co-founder of the restaurant in Nairobi. I’m here to talk about her global excursions, owning an eatery in Kenya and teaching law at the University of Paris.

Standing at 6’2, it’s easy to pick out the Senegalese on the street; her bold Afro-bald brown-dyed hair and throbbing personality to thank.

“Can we do the interview in French, please?” she implores as soon as we settle down at one of the restaurant’s vast private dining area, lulled by the soulful jazz music puffing from the speakers overhead.

“I’m kidding,” she says, laughing at my sudden unease.

Mane, 36, boasts a triple linguistic advantage and speaks fluent French, Spanish and English with a marked New Yorker twang, besides her native Wolof and “horrible Kiswahili” which she’s been trying hard to learn for seven years.


I ask her why a food business in Nairobi and what inspired her to incorporate art and music in food.

“I love food. I’m obsessed with food, so a restaurant was an easy option for me,” she says.

“I wanted an establishment that celebrated the nuances and diversity of dishes and different tastes.”

When Mane came to Kenya in 2013, she got down to exploring the wonders and vibrant food scene before the idea of The Collective, which opened its doors early last year, occurred.

“Beautiful food uplifts a dull mood. Music has the same magical effect. We want our patrons to be pleasured by the triple effect of food, art and music,” she explains.

Mane has the perfect cosmopolitan background, having been born in Senegal before leaving for the US at 12. She later studied in the UK and has worked in the US, Mexico, France, Shanghai and now Nairobi.

This cocktail of experiences has extensively influenced Mane’s culinary viewpoint. Her business, she notes, is a brew of bits picked from all these expeditions.

“I am a child of the world and I travel for food experiences. I’ve learnt a lot about the aesthetics of food. The Chinese and the Vietnamese, for instance, have an obsession for attention to detail and presentation of food. The service of Thai food is impeccable.”

On what impresses her about the Kenyan food scene, Mane says that eateries and dish choices in Nairobi are limitless.

“Options blow away your mind. Kenyans are very adventurous. I wish I could eat out at all these places. I just don’t have the time.”

Is the local food landscape where it should be? Mane doesn’t think so.

“We need crazy, experimental, disturbance. If more people are audacious, the more open, free and eclectic we become,” she notes.

Her memorable dining experiences were in Mexico and China.

The Collective restaurant along Monrovia Street

The Collective restaurant along Monrovia Street. The restaurant was opened in 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY

“Our host in Mexico served us a traditional cuisine prepared for two days,” she recounts.

Is she a good cook? “I’d like to think so,” Mane says. “I like to cook Senegalese dishes. My favourite is chicken yassa, made of caramelised onions and lemon. You grill the chicken separately then cook them together. You eat it with rice,” she explains.

On her type of clientele, Mane downplays the “erroneous notion” that The Collective is for elite diners.

“Our biggest selling point is inclusion. We have the Instagram folks coming and the older folks who need a quiet time. When we opened, we thought we’d mostly host the CBD {Central Business District} folks. To our surprise, we have struck a chord with people from the city’s periphery too.” To succeed in the food business, Mane emphasises that hygiene, presentation and flawless service are non-negotiable.

“From how the waiter smells to how the food is presented, dining should be an all-round experience that satisfies every sense,” she says.

And rightly so, there’s a methodical simplicity and elegance about the way the spinach stuffed chicken she recommends to me is presented. “You must respect the client’s time too. After they’ve ordered, you have to make sure the meal is ready within a reasonable amount of time,” Mane adds.

She says inconsistent, unreliable suppliers and human capital are the main drawbacks in this type of business.

“Your best sous chef, for instance, may leave and whoever replaces them struggles to maintain the standards. I’ve had to personally supervise all meals being served,” she says.

Mane studied law in the US and later did a Master’s degree in France before proceeding to do her MBA in Shanghai. “I’ve been an attorney for 11 years and even taught law at the University of Paris. I later worked in private equity and real estate financing,” she says.

After starting and running her own small law firm for several years, she shut it down to concentrate on the restaurant.

The only vague memory she has of the courtroom “was a disaster.”

“A judge asked a question and I couldn’t answer it. I decided I was never going to court,” she says.

After the embarrassment, Mane cast away the gown and wig but to keep her “leg in the game,” she does transactional law and advocacy.

To have a legal background as a restaurateur though, she says, helps her deal with the litany of litigations that the food business faces.

On hotel and restaurant closures Mane says: “Any restaurateur who hasn’t felt the heat is either a professional liar or independently wealthy with a lot of money,” she says. “It’s expensive to run a food business where quality is a top priority. You must set competitive prices and play the cost game well. If you fail, you’ll sure close.”

Away from work, Mane is a heavy reader and enjoys a lone time “where I don’t have to talk to anyone at all.” “My current reads include books on Ayurvedic cooking and Sufism,” she says, adding amid laughter, “as a single person, I love romance novels too.”

Does she feel the void of being single? “Not at all,” she says, adding quickly, “for now I’m happy and busy.”