‘The backbone of every good hotel is food’

“Sunday is our big day,” says Alex Mwaura, executive chef of the Southern Sun Hotel, in Ikoyi, Lagos while reporting to 9ja News staff.


The hotel’s Sunday Brunch is very popular, with Mwaura’s kitchen catering to 250 to 300 people for lunch.


“We have created a certain standard” that appeals to people, he declares. The hotel offers a Roast on Mondays; Wednesdays are for Grilled fare; while Seafood is served on Friday. “We have a lot of people coming in for [the seafood],” the executive chef discloses.


“The backbone of every good hotel is food,” he says.


He should know, having worked in the hospitality industry for 22 years, nine of them with the Southern Sun group. “I got my training in Kenya and I have now worked in six countries in Africa and the Middle East,” he informs with a satisfied smile.


After spells in countries including Rwanda, Tanzania, and the United Arab Emirates, the Kenyan father of two now presides over the Southern Sun restaurant, managing a small army of 67 staff.


Proud to be a chef


A graduate of the Kenya Utalli College, Nairobi, Mwaura started work as a chef at the age of 18; and he gives an insight into the standing of this career choice in his home country.


“Chefs are very respected in Kenya. [They] are very proud to be chefs. They run a professional organisation. It’s like being a doctor.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise, since “Kenya is a hospitality country.”


The motivation and demand for chefs came from the East African nation’s ever expanding tourism industry, which requires quality hotels. It became very attractive for young Kenyans to become chefs and to be proud of the training they get along the way.


“Right now, Cookery is a degree course back home. A diploma takes two years, a degree takes four years,” says Mwaura, who describes his alma mater as “the best hospitality college in Africa.”


There is always a hotel attached to hospitality colleges like Utalli, so aspiring chefs can master the practical side of cookery. Utalli means ‘hotel’ in Swahili; and with such training as such institutions provide, it’s no wonder it produces chefs like the charismatic Mwaura.


“To be a very good cook, you need to have a mathematical background, because you have to do costings. You also have to have good leadership skills,” says the executive chef, who notes that his career line is gradually becoming attractive to Nigerians, with some stewards aspiring to become chefs. “I am seeing the same trend here. People are becoming comfortable to say: I am a chef.” Although there are challenges, “There is a very big room for training hoteliers in Nigeria, especially in cookery.”


Cookery is an art


Mwaura runs an operation comprising a Butchery, Bakery, as well as Hot and Cold Kitchens. Pastries and cakes are baked in-house; and all supplies are sourced locally by Mwaura himself.


“You will be surprised that I have gone to almost all the markets, Ketu, everywhere,” he says. Indigenous dishes are standardised and formatted into recipes to suit all palettes.


“Cookery, people sometimes say, is an art,” notes Mwaura, who maintains that Nigerian meals present no challenges when it comes to aesthetically pleasing presentation at the restaurant table. “You don’t necessarily have to cook moin-moin in leaves. People really need to be more creative.”


On Nigerian cuisine


He is impressed with the local cuisine. “The Nigerian indigenous food is very good, very rich in balance of diet. You eat one meal to have a complete diet, rather than Continental, where you have to eat a line of foods. I really very much appreciate the culture of people eating here, because they have really indigenous food.”


He notes Nigerians’ preference for white meats: “Chicken seems to be a very popular dish here – chicken and fish.” Asked about his favourite Nigerian dish, he replies that, “I love egusi” – though he has a soft spot for his wife’s home cooking.


The Southern Sun restaurant runs three menus: Cocktail, Buffet and A La Carte. “We have got food for every pocket,” the executive chef declares. “Food revenue can run a hotel,” if a chef pays attention to what lands on the dinner table, as Alex Mwaura no doubt does. Being a chef “is an action-motivated career. It’s very hands-on and you get your feedback immediately.”


A good day is when all has gone well and customers are satisfied, he says with a smile, as takes us through the kitchen where it all happens. A door leads to the restaurant, where a sumptuous buffet lunch awaits.

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