Clad in her standard white kitchen wear and a matching chef’s hat, Joyce Saiyoki is often seen walking around the dining area of the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, smiling and greeting diners, courteously inquiring after their meals and general dining experience.
For the entire week that we stayed at the hotel, she came round to our table at least thrice and by the end of the week, she knew me enough to tell me about her worst experience with a customer.
She described how one evening while making her routine check-in on diners, she found herself on the receiving end of an angry outburst from a vexed diner.
"The moment I approached and asked how the meal was, he burst out saying, ‘what are you asking, the meal was horrible,’ he was really angry, I had never experienced something like that" she says.
However, she kept calm and waited until the diner had calmed down, then she explained that as much as her saying sorry might not mean much, she was still sorry for his bad experience.
"I waited for him and made sure that I won back his trust, and by the time his stay at the hotel came to an end, he only had a positive review."
She started her career in culinary arts 23 years ago, a journey she says has been challenging and exciting in equal measure. It has seen her venture away from her home country Kenya and immerse herself in other cultures, as she seeks to satisfy every palate.
Chef Saiyoki is the executive chef at the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel in Gisenyi, Rwanda, and before coming here she worked at the Dar es Salaam Serena, which she says bears some similarity with her current station in Rwanda.
Just like in Dar es Salaam, she caters to a culturally diverse clientele, with Lake Kivu Serena Hotel hosting tourists from all over the world, business travellers from the region as well as locals from Kigali who travel with their families seeking a serene getaway, while others come for destination weddings.
She says she blends international and local cuisines, while also maintaining global standards such that for instance, an American tourist can enjoy the same steak he or she enjoys in Washington while staying at the Serena Kivu.
Her signature dishes comprise of a wide array of seafood recipes having worked in Dar es Salaam for a long time. It was easy to introduce these recipes at Kivu Serena since the hotel is located on the shores of a fresh water body.
The major addition so far to the hotel’s culinary experience from Saiyoki has been sea and fresh water foods. For instance, she introduced a recipe of sea fish or fresh water fish cooked in coconut sauce, called fish paka, and another one called kuku paka.
"These are Swahili dishes. Most people think they are foreign dishes but you can make it in a manner that fits the local culinary experience using local ingredients, I have also trained our chefs on how to prepare other sea-food based dishes," she said.
She also introduced or modified chowder soup, which is now served in four Serena Hotels in different countries, "It was originally an English soup, but I modified it using East African spices."
Saiyoki says her role as an executive chef means her days are long, and she has to sign off on every meal served in the hotel, because she must have an idea of what is being prepared. "This keeps me around until the last diner leaves for bed."