At an idyllic pool house in Loresho, Brian Owango is preparing chilli garlic prawns (lots of flames and pizzazz). He runs Wok U Like, an oriental gourmet catering for private events but that’s now a delivery service.
Occasionally, he steps away from the stove to sip a Japanese blended whisky because it’s his 41st birthday. Outside, the sky is grey and it leaks with light drizzles, perfectly mirroring the current Covid-19 situation and what it means to businesses, especially small ones like his.
His core business — Aqueous — a pioneering mobile bar/ events company that has done major events growing in leaps and bounds, recently ground to a complete halt.
Now the UK-educated building-surveyor-turned-hotelier (Director of Restaurants, Fairmont, five years), mixologist and capoeira instructor (currently holding classes via Zoom) cooks, does yoga, plays with his daughter and thinks a lot about what post-Coronavirus means for business.
“I don’t see it [events business] coming back, nobody will want to be in big crowds anymore.” He tells JACKSON BIKO. “But the most important lesson for us is we have to learn other skills in order to survive in this unpredictable world.”
What would you like to eat for your last meal on earth?
[Long pause]. It would have to be rock cod fish, seasoned with salt and peppers and poussin sauce.
I read about this famous chef who says the secret of his art is having a good knife, so he often travels to Japan to shop for his own knives. What’s your thing as a chef?
Overly every chef needs a good knife - as you can see from my collections. But for me what’s important is an organised mind. You see initially anybody getting into food and beverage was someone who didn’t do well in school. When I got into it, my parents were like, “what? a bar? You want to serve drinks in a bar?” I think serving large groups of people needs a very organised mind.
At some point, if this goes on for much longer most will not remember how it was to do business pre-covid era. What do you remember most about doing business pre-Covid?
That my business -AQUEOUS - could happily do five drinks events at the same time in different locations and three food catering on the same day in three locations. It was a well oiled machine. We went from that to basically being an illegal activity after Covid-19 took over. [Shrugs]
What does cooking mean for you?
It means transferring creativity and love to people. It’s one of the best brain exercises you can give someone. Because let nobody lie to you, cooking is preparation, if you don’t prepare - whether you are working in a chain of restaurants or a small hole-in-the-wall, you will fail. It’s a big rehearsal by breaking down the small parts. And preparation requires an organised mind. My mental balance comes from martial arts and partly from dabbling in this industry. I have seen a lot of friends fall off this bandwagon because they were not balanced. I find balance to be the unspoken element of the planet. We don’t pay enough attention to this aspect as a country, a race, a people.
When were you least inspired by life?
That was in 2003; sitting in Dubai doing job interviews at places I didn't believe in. Dubai is a weird place with hidden social ills and I had travelled there under the misconception that I'd be spending time with an old friend. The latter didn't happen, I was in a hotel downtown for a long while working from there. It was awful and Dubai in 2003 was a weird place. That experience almost killed my spirit but thankfully I got myself out of it.
Are there old habits that you find yourself unlearning during this time of self quarantine?
The very concept of “being busy.” I think for me being busy was just getting in the way. I hope I don’t go back to the same old idea of being busy. We, in the food and beverage industry, are not good at that balance and our relationships tend to suffer as a result. I hope that when we get through this season I will have the discipline to know that I can only do three things in a day and be happy with those three things. One of those things is being with my daughter who is now four years old.
How are you raising her?
She’s a mixed race child. I grew up in an Anglicised society and I don’t want to define what validates my daughter. I want her to know what Isukuti or Ohangla is, not just ballet and whatever she learns in school. And so I sieve information that she gets, I make sure she, for example, listens to Jackson 5, or Sam Cooke. I would like her to pick and learn from Capoeira which has greatly shaped me. It’s who I am and what I do. Capoeira dates back hundreds of years ago started by the slaves. It’s a lifetime journey and it makes you question the things around you. It’s about movement, war, ritual tradition, musicality, black history and all the things that the world wants us to forget.
How do you plan to spend the rest of this 40s decade?
I want to work smart. I want to develop younger Africans. I want to study more online. I want to engage less with time wasters.
How do you think you will emerge post-Covid?
[Pause] At zero. I will be starting at zero. I started this journey some 11 years ago and now I’m down to nothing, down to zero again. So that moment when all this ends won’t be unprecedented when you think about it because most of us will be starting from zero, but we have started from zero before, you know what I mean? And we will build it up slowly, brick by brick, but with new, fresh and invigorated insights. But we have to start again. We will start again.