It is a chilly Sunday evening and the tempo at the Ubumwe Grande Hotel in Kigali is one of quiet excitement.
Attendants are gathered around a distinguished gentleman at the bar, hanging on every word he's saying. They listen attentively to his instructions, as he quietly takes them through the paces of planning and laying out a restaurant for fine dining in preparation for a forthcoming banquet at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant.
The man is Michelin Star (2019) chef Mutaro Balde. He is a visiting chef. A master of his craft, his protégées are attentive as he calmly speaks with a French accent, answering questions as they come up. It is a chance of a lifetime for some of the hotel stewards, having never seen or worked with a Michelin Star chef before.
Balde, a trim figure standing at nearly six feet tall, is bald with a neatly trimmed beard. At first impression, it would seem like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Balde was born in Guinea Bissau and grew up in modest circumstances in a young country that was just a decade into Independence. When he was six years old, his parents sent him to Saint-Louis near Dakar in Senegal to study at a madrassa (Islamic religious school).
“In the madrassa, we had to fend for ourselves by begging in the streets for food. Some days you got lucky and got lunch, other days you would not be lucky and it meant going to bed hungry. But we were lucky to get food most times because no one likes the sight of a desperate child begging for food. This is something I take my hat off to Senegalese people. They were so kind.
"There were thousands of us begging for food in the street. It taught me meal-sharing. I remember that when we approached some people begging for food, they would take one bite and give us the rest of the plateful. There is no bigger love than that,” he said.
In his imagination, he was a son of God destined for future glory. Chasing this destiny, a teenage Balde reunited with his family when they emigrated to France. As a teenager, Balde dreamed of being a fashion designer with his own clothing brand. But he soon realised that he was not cut out for it.
FIRST CAREER MOVE
One day he got into a conversation with his teacher while seeking career advice. His family was then living in the Paris suburbs. The teacher recommended that he do a one-week internship at the Centre European des Professions Culinaires, a culinary school in Paris, as he thought of a career to take. Not one to let an opportunity slip, Balde enrolled for the internship programme the next day.
He still could not picture himself as a cook or a chef for that matter, but he was moved by the camaraderie, culture and the culinary arts the school offered. Balde found his passion while watching the chefs create artistic dishes from seemingly plain-looking staples. After his internship, Balde resolved to sign up for a course in hotel and restaurant service at the same culinary school, which he did for six years.
“Being a chef means dedication. It’s all about passion, without it you cannot survive in a kitchen. Our work is not the normal 9-to-5 job. When everybody else is sleeping, we are working. When our family and friends are celebrating birthdays and Christmas, we are working, serving others.
"I don’t see my job as heavy duty; I am always happy to be at work. When you have that feeling, no matter how many hours you put in, you feel good. Being a chef is also about sharing and having a heart for helping others. Not so long ago, I was begging for food, now I am the one giving out food,” Balde told The EastAfrican.
After completing his studies, Balde tried to find a job around Paris, but being summer, most restaurants were closed. A friend recommended a Google search for job openings for chefs in the UK, and as luck would have it, an opening for a chef at Joel Robuchon Michelin starred restaurant, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon’s London popped up. He jumped at the chance and called the number even though he could barely speak English.
Fortunately, the person who answered the call was French. Balde persuaded her to give him the job despite his lack of credentials and the fact that he spoke very little English.
Within a week, he had moved to London, rented a room with the few euros he had left. He struggled getting around in London because Google Translate had not been created. But that was not going to detract him.
Balde showed skill and ambition, training under Joel Robuchon, who was once named ''Chef of the Century'' and held the highest record of Michelin Guide Stars, the most by any chef in the world. When he arrived at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the restaurant had only one Michelin Star, and in the three and a half years Balde worked there they got a second star. He was instrumental in this upgrade.
But it was not all smooth sailing. He says it was very tough but also funny. He recalls, “During my first service as a line chef at Joel Robuchon, I fumbled a lot. It was a really busy kitchen and there was a lot of pressure. As a cook, I was in the hot section. One time, I was doing the meat garnish. I had two chefs and a head chef screaming at me with orders. In the heat of the moment, I froze and just kept staring at them for a long while. I came back to my senses and managed to do the meal. It wasn’t funny at that moment, but looking back, I just cannot help but laugh.”
After training under Robuchon, he now wanted to work at a three Michelin Star restaurant and decided to go back home to France and train under Alain Ducasse, who was famous for his unadulterated excellence.
Ducasse, who is very protective of French products and cuisine, was world renowned for being the first chef to own restaurants carrying three Michelin Stars in three cities, and held the second highest record of Michelin Guide Star after Robuchon.
“Working under Robuchon and Ducasse taught me everything. I was at the best restaurants with the best chefs in the world. There was no better school to understand cuisine, and the life of a chef than those kitchens. I got to understand the philosophy of both chefs and I today still rely on the knowledge I learnt there. It taught me perfection, and that we all have a secret power within. Most of all, it helped me to learn to push further,” he said.
Mutaro had a grand vision for his career. So after 10 months at Alain Ducasse’s Plaza Athenee Hotel Paris, he moved to 6 New York in Paris as a sous chef where he worked for three years. He got his big break when he was head hunted by a Lebanese entrepreneur who had heard of his skills and was looking to change the gastronomy scene in Lebanon.
Mutaro moved to Beirut to work as an executive chef at Restaurant La Centrale, a relatively difficult world to navigate, particularly for a black African man.
Using his training under the great chefs, he took the techniques of both Robuchon and Ducasse and fused them with the Middle Eastern influence of Lebanese food to give it a particular French twist. He found a way to overcome all the struggles inside and outside the kitchen. After a couple of hard months, he travelled to France where he by chance met a French industrial entrepreneur who had an ambition of building a leading fine dining group. Mutaro laid out his own vision for building an iconic restaurant and with the investor’s backing, they started the project.
At 34, being an executive chef who had never been to Asia, Mutaro moved to Hong Kong where they embarked on the island’s most ambitious food and beverage project. Their first French restaurant, Bibo, is an offbeat place that combines the best of both contemporary art and cuisine. Housed in an underground building, it displays works of the finest contemporary artists from Basquiat, Banksy, Keith Haring, Kaws to Murakami, and serves delicious French gourmet cuisine.
Balde currently leads a team of 250 people in 12 restaurants, as the executive chef and general manager of Le Comptoir Group, a fine dining group in Hong Kong.
He was awarded three Michelin stars; two for Ecriture Restaurant and one for the Ocean Restaurant, two of the restaurants under the Hong Kong fine dining restaurant chain.
v This made him the first black man of African descent and the second African after Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen of South Africa to be awarded a coveted Michelin star.
He is also the 2019 Michelin Star recipient.
According to Balde, more African chefs need to familiarise themselves with and understand the relevance of the Michelin Guide, then they can create iconic dishes that will prompt the Michelin inspectors to rate African restaurants. There are no Michelin starred restaurants in Africa. The closest there is, is the West African-inspired restaurant Ikoyi, started by Nigerian entrepreneur Hassan Odukale in London.
“With the food culture in Africa, we just need to work on a bit on service delivery and it will make a major difference. Europeans and Asians say they go to restaurants for the experience. Africa needs to understand how we can make it an experience,” Balde told The EastAfrican.
Chef Balde and his partner Davis Johnson, are already planning on setting up their first fine dining restaurant chain in Kigali next year, and get a local partner to build a culinary school.
“Imagine a restaurant with authentic African influence. A place where we study different dishes with the aim of creating magic. We intend to make fine dining normal in Africa,” he said.
“When people imagine African food, the picture that comes to mind is of a pile up plate, while French food evokes fine dining. We need to change the narrative. We need to promote our food through programmes like Top Chef and Master Chef,” he added.
Balde believes his mother is the best cook and best person to cook for and dine with. His favourite food is his mother’s chicken Yassa.
He hopes to write a cookbook some day that will take its pride of place on his shelf, next to those that inspired him written by Paul Bocuse, Ducasse and Robuchon,
He enjoys travelling the world, hiking, and walking on the beach.
ABOUT THE MICHELIN AWARD
Michelin Stars are a rating system used by the red Michelin Guide to grade restaurants on their quality.
The guide was originally developed in 1900 to show French drivers where local amenities such as restaurants and mechanics were. The rating system was first introduced in 1926 as a single star, with the second and third stars introduced in 1933.
According to the Guide, one star signifies “a very good restaurant”, two stars are “excellent cooking that is worth a detour”, and three stars mean “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey.”
The listing of starred restaurants is updated once a year.