Majlis Resort in Lamu is a wonderful getaway, not least because of the delicious food. I also met head chef John Chega and his deputy Ramadhan Kadenge and was fascinated by their journey into cooking.
Growing up, Chega, 38, wished to join the armed forces after secondary school. “When I did not make it, my father told me of an opportunity at a cooking school, so I tried it for one year,” he said.
After training, he worked for six years at the Hemingways Resort in Watamu, he had stints in Nairobi and Zanzibar before joining the Majlis in 2013 as head chef. Chega describes himself as a versatile cook able to prepare a variety of international dishes with a focus on Italian, English, French and Asian cuisine.
Most of the guests are Kenyan, resident expatriates and a sprinkling of tourists. In pre-Covid times, however, international visitors were the majority, especially from Italy and the UK. “But many of our foreign guests still want to try local food so I cook a mix of international and Swahili-style food,” says Chega.
Ramadhan, 26, is a specialist in Indian food. He says many Kenyan chefs are not comfortable with this cuisine because Indian clients can be very particular about their food. “But I had first hand training under an Indian chef. Now I am an expert in Indian cooking.”
Like Chega, Ramadhan first started cooking at home, taught by his mother who was a wedding cateress.
“I accompanied her to different functions and learned how to cook biryani, pilau and other dishes typical at Swahili weddings,” said Ramadhan.
After high school and headed straight into kitchen training for two years. Later he studied food and beverage production at the Mombasa campus of Nairobi Technical Training Institute with a focus on cake-making and decorating.
He has worked in hotels in the South Coast and Masai Mara. “I can work anywhere, even under a tent. Just tell me how many days, your budget, how much food we need and I will cook it for you.” But it was his skills at Indian cuisine that brought him to The Majlis in 2019, catering for a sizable Asian clientele.
“Indians have many communities and various foods. Those living near rivers and the ocean eat more fish, but the majority are vegetarian,” said Ramadhan. He prepares dishes from the north, south and western regions of India.
Chega and Ramadhan oversee meals for the main restaurant, conference rooms and the snack bars at the two-restaurant swimming pools. They cook a lot of fish, seafood and coastal dishes. However, the two are flexible and can make whatever food guests like to eat.
Says Ramadhan, “For Kenyans we often cook ugali, mchicha and such so that guests feel free to eat food to their taste.
For Ramadhan, cooking is both a career and an art. “That is why it is called culinary arts.”
He even stopped using curry powder after many years because it is not originally from India. Instead he now prepares his own mix of spices that are more in keeping with the traditional style of Indian cooking.
“To be a successful chef must be something you desire in your heart and have a strong interest in food,” says Ramadhan.
There was a large wedding group during my stay. “We have wedding menus but usually plan with the guests to select what they want for their group,” says Chega. As the senior-most chef he works long days and is usually in the hotel from breakfast service until dinner time. “Unless you have an off day, the head chef must always be present,” he told me.
In the course of the day he compiles food orders for the storekeeper to purchase daily, plans menus for various events and supervises the kitchen work.