Kenya’s top chefs
While the city’s top restaurants in the 1980s and 1990s were those affiliated with hotels, societal changes have seen a shift towards independent establishments. The higher-end brands, however, continue to ride in on the strength of an international hotel chain.
Kenya is already home to Sankara, Tribe, Crown Plaza, Ole Sereni, Boma, Kempinksi – all of which opened in the last five years – and in the coming years, dusitD2, Radisson Blu, Pride Inn and Westhouse are expected to make an entry, adding approximately 1,000 new rooms to the hotel circuit.
With each new hotel comes two or three international standard restaurants, equipped with state-of-the-art kitchen facilities and chefs. The Asian 88 and Italian Lucca at the Kempinski, for instance, have both helped to build the hotel’s profile in a new market.
“These restaurants are the flagship. They are not catering for a mass audience. They are showcasing their service and food,” said Shah, adding that when a hotel like Kempinksi decides to have four restaurants within its complex, it suggests they are trying to establish themselves as an FnB (food and beverage) destination.
In the last couple of years, Nairobi has also benefited from individual chefs who have developed the country’s reputation in gastronomy circles, even though the city is yet to embrace the celebrity chef culture.
Karan Suri, group executive chef at the Fairmont Hotels in East Africa, was responsible for raising the profile of the Fairmont Norfolk in Nairobi, and his successes in Kenya have earned him a transfer to Fairmont Canada.
Marcus Mitchell, chef and manager at Karen-based Talisman, is among Kenya’s top chefs and was voted Chef of the Year at Nairobi’s 2012 Taste Awards.
Kiran Jethwa, head chef and owner of Seven Grill and Lounge, boosted his personal brand and that of his restaurants after he helped Kenya’s culinary tourism segment gain momentum through the launch of his television show ‘Tales from the Bush Larder’ which airs on National Geographic.
The arrival of Michelin-starred chefs, such as Barry Tonks at Hemingways, has also spotlighted establishments frequented by high-net-worth individuals. And since early 2013, Nairobi’s Capital Club, East Africa’s first Premier Private Business Club, has monopolised the spotlight.
A networking hub, it is the first of its kind in Africa and the fifth in the world after London, Moscow, Guangzhou China and Dubai. Both of its restaurants – Signature Grill and The Rooftop – boast the best in high-end cuisine. Nothing less could be expected from Michelin-starred chef Luigi Frascella, who is the executive chef at the Club.
The arrival of Caramel Restaurant and Lounge mid this year will further raise the quality of high-end cuisine available in Nairobi. The chain, acclaimed for its opulent settings and A-list clientele, enters Nairobi through a partnership deal between Las Vegas’ Light Group and Dubai’s Caramel Group.
The entrepreneurial quality of Nairobi’s restaurant scene, therefore, speaks of increasing affluence. On one hand, it underlines the development of a more-cosmopolitan society spurred by an increasing expatriate community as Nairobi’s hub status in the region grows and multinationals open head offices here. On the other, it illustrates how more Kenyans are being exposed to international trends and tastes as they return to Kenya after working in the diaspora, or travel abroad for work and leisure.
“We are a consumer class,” said Doshi. “Kenyans like to go out, and the weather is conducive to it.”
Shah of EatOut also says that the emergence of a modern family concept where both parents are required to work has influenced the change in eating patterns such that more couples and families order in or eat out in the course of a week. Nairobi’s top demographic eats out three times a week, he says.
“The family unit is slowly disappearing. Not many people collectively spend time at home. Both husband and wife are working … and very few are cooking at home,” he adds. “People will go out to eat as a given, and they want more choice in where they can go. Ten years ago, going out to eat was a special occasion.”
The dynamics of Nairobi’s property scene, which is not developing in concentric circles, has also seen restaurants mushrooming across different parts of the city. Westlands was traditionally the heart of food, but the newer entrants are choosing to open at the Lavington Green, in Hurlingham, Karen, Kilimani, and Gigiri.
“A lot of people who could afford nice meals used to live around Westlands. But affluent people are not just living on this side of town any more,” said Doshi.
Location is therefore a key factor, and the preferred restaurants are either those that are conveniently located and offer parking facilities, or destination locations where the experience of eating out is as enjoyable as the food.
Nairobi’s creative tech scene has also tapped into the trend, and the last couple of years has seen a number of online and mobile apps attempt to structure the vibrant Nairobi food scene.
The award winning EatOut platform has been one of the more popular, but even with 1,000 bookings a day, Shah believes they are catering to just 5% of the actual seats being filled in restaurants.
“I would love to say that EatOut has been instrumental in this industry but we have not. We have literally taken a surf board and caught the wave,” he said.