Khaled Allibhai, head chef of Cultiva Kenya restaurant, gets restless quickly.
“With food it is easy to cook without passion because you’re doing the same things over and over again,” he says.
But at Cultiva, which he joined in August 2020, Khaled, 28, has come into his own, crafting unique dishes and plucking ingredients directly from their on-premises greenhouse.
Cultiva’s farm-to-table restaurant concept of sustainable food sourcing, forming relationships with farmers and upcycling resources is the brainchild of co-founder Ariel Moscardi, Khaled’s soulmate in culinary arts.
“It’s rare to meet somebody with whom your ideologies align so well. And being able to have input into a menu is freeing for a chef,” Khaled says.
He takes his passion for cooking to his grandmother. “Cooking was her way of expressing her love. She taught me that if you are not doing what you love, it is better not to do it at all,” he said.
Khaled studied culinary arts at the International Hotel School in South Africa. After graduating, he worked at the Chop House restaurant of Radisson Blu Hotel in Nairobi.
Now he grows his own ingredients, crafting meals based on what is in season. He gave me a tour of the greenhouse with celery, rainbow chard, spinach, Romanesco broccoli and several varieties of heirloom tomatoes. “We have some regular dishes but no fixed menus. When I walk into the farm and find something ready, I try something new.”
He uses the edible flowers from the greenhouse to add colour, and peppery or citrussy flavours to a meal. Homemade ice creams are infused with micro herbs. Some weeks ago he featured long, thick king trumpet mushrooms that have a meaty flavour when grilled.
Khaled also smokes different cuts of meat and fish using a homemade smoker fashioned from old oil drums.
The smoker is key to some of his unique dishes, like the vegan eel made from potato starch and seaweed, then smoked to enhance the flavours. Vegan burgers are another speciality, made from a wheat substitute called seitan. It took him three weeks to tailor-make his own seitan, fashioning it into the right texture and taste like chicken.
He joined Cultiva during the Covid-19 pandemic when the restaurant only offered take-out meals. Luckily, he had already cut his teeth in the food delivery business after the Radisson Hotel shut down a few months earlier.
After two weeks of sitting at home, he came up with the idea of setting up an online food service that specialised in bao buns, fluffy Asian buns filled with different meats and vegetables.
“I cooked from home, my girlfriend handled the social media and on the first day on Instagram we had about 400 followers,” said Khaled.