Spencer, 24, is a qualified pastry and kitchen chef. He graduated from Top Chef Culinary Institute in Nairobi. He has trained at the Tamarind Mombasa and the Nairobi Serena among others. He is the co-founder and currently works at Spez, a catering company based in Nairobi. Apollo Kaddumukasa Kironde II spoke to him
When did you start in the industry and what in particular inspired you to take up the mantle?
I basically began in 2005, while in culinary school. I was fortunate because my course was 50 per cent industrial exposure so I spent as much time in the industry as I did in school. My first experience was at an industrial bakery where one of the tasks was to make hundreds of different varieties of breads. This was done on the night shift, thus the bread would be fresh for the morning. As luck would have it, my first ever shift was the night shift from 8p.m to 6a.m. This was at a time when most of my peers were just starting university and enjoying the joys of campus life while I was on the night shift. I recall doubting whether this was the industry for me. Fortunately, I hung in there and grew to love it odd hours and all. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else now.
My inspiration has been my parents, who encouraged me to pursue my dreams no matter how unorthodox. My earliest recollection of the kitchen was sitting on the ledge watching my Ugandan mother make supper; she is a great cook but so is my father (who is Kenyan). I remember watching him cook on several occasions. When I was about nine, after helping prepare the traditional Sunday English breakfast at home for ages by passing the salt and chopping the vegetables, I gave it a go myself. I can’t quite remember how it went but it certainly was not a disaster. I have been cooking pretty much ever since.
Tell us about your culinary education/exposure
I attended Top Chefs Culinary Institute for three years and trained at The Tamarind in Mombasa and the Nairobi Serena. I now work at Spez, a premium banqueting and outside catering company that I co-founded in 2007.
The culinary highlights in your career?
Successfully completing our first large catering contract with Spez for 800 people and our first society wedding which was a three course banquet for 650 people, but mostly seeing Spez grow from a small back yard business to what it is today.
Which chefs have influenced you the most and why have they been of such inspiration and influence?
The first chef I worked under at the Tamarind in Mombasa, where I had my first experience in a production kitchen. It could easily have been my last; not much prepares you for what a real kitchen is like, but he guided me through it quite well. I was also awed by Marco Pierre White after reading loads about him and his restaurants. His pursuit of perfection, his journey and his eventual retirement were quite amazing.
Name your favourite cookbooks and why
Larousse Gastronomique: (The encyclopaedia of gastronomy) because it’s a chef’s best friend; White Heat and Marco 1001 Recipes by Marco Pierre White because it has 1001 recipes and I have got some great ideas from it; and lastly, The Australian Woman’s Weekly CookBook Series, because one will find almost any recipe in them.
What’s your favourite kitchen gadget or item and why?
My chef’s knife, it’s perfect.
Your most memorable dining experience?
Dining at La Colombe, currently the best restaurant in Africa and the 12th best restaurant in the world was an amazing experience.
Your favourite eating joint in Kenya, if any at all ...
There are several restaurants I go to for particular food depending on my mood, but I would not say I have an outright favourite.
Have you any food item that you hate to admit to liking?
Deep fried calamari tentacles. They are most often trimmed off and disposed of, but if I could get my hands on them, I would fry them dry and eat them as they are.
What is your favourite dish and why?
A good steak or sea food of any kind is fine. Oysters, squid and eel are all really amazing.
Tell us about your worst experience in the kitchen and how you overcame it
I had to make brown sauce and was running late (it takes hours to make). After a couple of hours, it still was not dark enough, so I put some food dye in. The results were disastrous and worse, the chef was doing his rounds in the kitchen. When he got to my section, I told him it was broth. Fortunately he believed me and didn’t even taste it. If he had found out, he would have been livid. I eventually managed to dispose of it and start the process again. Needless to say, it ended up being a late night in the kitchen.
Four items that are in your fridge (now)
Yogurt for breakfast, chocolate cake, mushrooms and a bottle of Chardonnay.
Secret junk food that you love to indulge yourself…no holds barred?
Hamburgers. The bigger the better.
What three food items would you consider indispensable to your existence?
Garlic (God’s gift to food), chilli (everything tastes better with chilli), chocolate (it cannot be dessert without it).
What is the state of the culinary affairs in Kenya and the future of the industry?
The culinary industry is buzzing right now. Long gone are the days of conservatism and sticking to traditional favourites. There is a whole new class of Kenyans who know about and expect different cuisines and quality food, especially if they are paying highly for it. Nowadays, an average menu has fantastic fusion delights and not just grilled chicken breast and the sirloin steak. There is an abundance of new and exciting restaurants popping up all over the place too. As for the future, it can only get better with the amount of good quality fresh ingredients, sea food and grain-fed beef available.
What inspires you about cooking and what do you love best about it?
The process; making vegetables and raw meat into something amazing, from selecting the right quality to cooking it and finally presenting it. My favourite part is when someone actually puts the food in their mouth and the look on their face when they are totally blown away.
What is your specialty for that matter?
Madras seafood curry, although I make a wicked steak as well.
Can you think of a food for which you would be willing to travel across the globe?
The prawns of Mozambique, the Kobe beef of Japan and the real Sacher Torte of Switzerland.
What is your comfort food?
Food cooked by my mother.