KAMUGISHA: My dream was to be a lawyer, but food called

Saturday February 2 2019

Paul Kamugisha, executive chef, Ubumwe

Paul Kamugisha, executive chef, Ubumwe Grande Hotel, Kigali. PHOTO | JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA | NMG 

JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
By JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
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Paul Kamugisha was born and raised in Kigali, Rwanda. As a child, he dreamt of being a lawyer but a turn of events found him in the hospitality industry.

After completing his A-Levels, Kamugisha's got a job as a waiter at a restaurant. He later moved to the bar section.

It just happened that the government of Rwanda was offering scholarships to students to study tourism-related courses to boost tourism service in the country, and Kamugusha’s boss saw his potential in the industry and pushed him to apply.

He got the sponsorship and was enrolled at the Kenya Utalii College in Nairobi for an undergraduate diploma course in food production. He later studied for undergraduate diploma in culinary arts from the Orton School of Culinary Art and Hotel Management in Singapore and added a bachelor’s degree in Leisure & Tourism Management from University of Tourism, Technology and Business Studies in Kigali.

As the executive chef at Ubumwe Grande Hotel — one of the premier four-star hotels in Rwanda — Kamugisha works 12 hours a day.

He is on a mission to use his experience and knowledge to improve the quality of food and customer service in the country and put Rwanda on the world's gastronomy map.

Kamugusha has worked in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, and Khartoum in a career spanning over 13 years. He credits his mentors in the best five-star kitchens in the region.

His culinary repertoire and kitchen management flourished during his stint under Eshton Muthai, then executive chef at the Kampala Serena, where he developed and refined his culinary techniques.

Kamugusha believes that the first year as a commis chef brought everything together for him: How to focus on one or two ingredients in a dish and make them shine, how to keep things simple and interesting and most important, how to work with the seasons and different cultures.

Before joining Ubumwe Grande hotel as its executive chef, he worked at the Utalii Hotel, Nairobi Serena Hotel, Kigali Serena Hotel, Kampala Serena Hotel, in Dar es Salaam and even had a stint at the United Nations. Before Ubumwe Grande he was at the Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Centre, Kigali.

His affinity for traditional recipes has inspired him to create authentic dishes using local products, to create flavours to turn East African dishes into culinary delights.

Kamugisha is the only Rwandan executive chef of a major hotel chain in the country.
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How did you get started in the industry and what made you realise you wanted to work in the food sector?

I happen to have been working at a bar and restaurant as a waiter when the hospitality industry in Rwanda was still in its infancy. My boss believed that I was gifted in the culinary art and encouraged me to apply for a government-sponsored hospitality scholarship at the Kenya Utalii College in Nairobi. I was the first to be selected and as they say the rest is history. I must however add that I grew up wanting to be a lawyer, so I was just in the right place at the right time.

Who is the person you admire the most in the food industry?

In the region, I admire Eshton Muthai the executive chef at the Kampala Serena. He taught me a lot on kitchen management. Internationally, I admire the French chef Paul Bocuse and the English chef Marco Pierre White who was the youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin Stars.

What is the best thing about being a chef?

It is when my clients are happy with my food. Between a happy client and more money, I would pick the former. Being a chef is very fulfilling and unlike any other career, you just can’t get out of college and become a chef. You have to start out as a commis chef and work your way up.

How would you describe your food?

Healthy and authentic. I do not like to copy and paste recipes unless it is a signature dish, and which I will still strive to add my personal touch. As an executive chef I am also very eclectic. Being a four-star means we have regular international clientele. So, I combine different types of techniques from different types of international and local cuisines.

What are the essential cook books on your shelf?

The second edition of On Cooking of Culinary Fundamentals by Sarah R.Labensky, the fourth edition of The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg and Techniques of Healthy Cooking by L. Timothy Ryan.

What is the one ingredient/recipe that you struggled to master? How did you overcome that struggle?

As a student at the Utalii College, I struggled to make the Bavarian cream dessert. My major challenge was in unmoulding and serving. It collapsed at every attempt. It was humiliating and so I had to consult my supervisor who directed me to the library where I got the book Professional Pastry Chef which helped me master it and I use the same book to this day.

What inspires you?

Colour. I love mixing colours in different dishes to create flavours. I approach it like a graphic artist. I am also inspired by sheer unadulterated drive for excellence to be a world class chef and also cost control as an executive chef.

How do you unwind after work?

By going to the gym. On my off days which happens to be on the weekends, I enjoy sparkling wine and nyama choma.

What is the most exciting food item you have worked on recently?

A breakfast snack called a kaimati. It is like the Kenyan kaimati but with a distinct twist. I have also introduced new salads at our Fiesta Restaurant and a distinct Rwandese goat stew at our Rooftop Restaurant.

What can you so far call the lowest point of your career?

It certainly has to be when I was in college and I couldn’t get any recipes right. I got so disappointed in myself that I packed my bags ready to quit. When I got to the college gate, the security men stopped me from leaving and I was brought back to my supervisor who encouraged me to be patient and said she almost quit too in her first semester in culinary school. I resolved to stay in college at all cost.

What was your biggest kitchen disaster?

I think this happened in June of 2015 when I worked at the Serena in Dar es Salaam. We had a wedding dinner for 500 guests and we ran out of food after only serving 270 people. To make it worse, the meat was too frozen to be cooked and we ended up serving a non-meat meal and also had to get extra staff to help us serve.

What is your favourite kitchen scar?

During one of the chef competitions at the beginning of my career, I chopped off half of my ring finger. But we won.

What is your guilty pleasure snack while watching your guilty pleasure show?

I love eating beef liver brochettes while watching football.

What is your go-to food after a long day?

A goat leg nyama choma with spinach.

What food are you craving the most right now?

I am craving a beef steak with spinach.

Is there food that you are secretly obsessed with having at home?

A cheesecake.

What is the most memorable meal you have served?

It was a Valentine menu in 2016 while I worked at the Kigali Serena Hotel. My boss was on leave and I finally had the opportunity to create a menu I had been planning for four years. It was very detailed from the starters to the desserts and the terminology used on the menu. It was such a hit with the Belgian guests who were in attendance.

If you could cook for and dine with anyone in the world, who would it be and what would you make?

I would love to cook my signature Rwandan mutton stew for Gordon Ramsay. Just to show him that Africans can be inventive and innovative in the kitchen too.