Passion for culinary. In Primary Six, Mark Kaheru, offered to always cut onions, tomatoes and other fresh ingredients. This passion, with training from Jimmy Sekasi Catering Institute, has turned into a paying profession, as EDGAR R. BATTE explores.
There could have been a maid at home but her absence was a good reason for Mark Kaheru to start his journey as a cook, later chef. His mother made sure that, as children, Kaheru and his siblings learnt how to do chores.
All four had something to do for the day. If one was sweeping or cleaning the compound, another was mopping the house, the other doing dishes and crockery or cooking.
From observing his mother, Kaheru was keen on everything she did while she prepared a meal for the family. He offered a hand to cut onions, tomatoes, and any other fresh foodstuffs.
When his mother trusted him to do more, Kaheru was happy to add some ingredients too. He always looked forward to the day he would be cooking for the family because it was the opportunity to practise all he had observed or even read about in his search to better the cook in him. He was in Primary Six.
As he did the rest of the chores, his plan was to ‘professionalise’ the skill his mother had introduced in his life. Senior Four vacation offered some time for him to do more cooking. One afternoon, he returned home and announced to his parents that he had enrolled himself at Jimmy Sekasi Institute of Catering
His mother smiled. She knew her son was committed to gaining something out of cooking which had now become a passion. As parents, they supported him to grow his skill.
At the catering institute, he learnt more and he proved to his sponsors that their money had attained value. He started making minced pies, which he sold at his mother’s work place during breakfast hours.
One morning as Kaheru prepared pies, John Hunwich, a family friend walked to the kitchen as he was making the snacks. He asked for one and tasting it, he called on Kaheru’s mother. He asked her permission for Kaheru to supply his place, Backpackers Hostel & Campsite, with snacks.
Kaheru now had two clients. He woke up early to prepare the pies. Then, he planned what to prepare at Backpackers which is home to tourists. Many are fans of fast foods, which Kaheru, then still in his Senior Four study vacation, found exciting because he could easily prepare chips, chicken, sausages and read up on how to spice or marinate them for different tastes, occasionally.
“I was fresh out of catering school and happy to try out a few things. There was no Google, so there were no online recipes,” Kaheru recollects. It took passion to keep the tourists licking their fingers as they enjoyed the teenager’s meals.
The reviews of his cooking must have been good because the friendship between Kaheru and Hunwick went beyond business. Hunwick drove Kaheru to Ntare School for his first term in Senior Five.
When I asked for an interview, Kaheru asked me to visit him at home. I obliged because this would be another opportunity to enjoy his fine cooking. This time, it was fish fillet served over creamy butter soup. His kitchen is spacious enough for him to turn around with saucepans and cooking pans without knocking a guest in the face. It is clean and organised. Unlike many restaurants and hotels, he does not need to first put things in order for you to be let into the cooking space.
And it is not only the kitchen that keeps his cooking items. From the doorstep and all the way in, something indicates that this is a chef’s home.
There are cookers, well arranged in a corner, a pile of saucepans in another. Next to them are frying pans, all clean and placed on top of charcoal stoves. Food containers, more frying pans, exotic stoves, fryers, plates, dishes and more are in the kitchen cabinets.
On one of the kitchen shelves are ingredients from which he picks one at a time to spice the fish fillet. As he checks and turns the fish, he explains the finer details of how well fish needs to done.
Midway preparing the creamy sauce, he abandons it, explaining that the butter is burnt which would compromise the quality of taste. The meal takes well under half an hour to be served.
The plating was another careful part; the fillet first, then the cream carefully poured on the fish like you would put extra care when laying bed sheets on a mattress.
There is some leafy addition, artistically sprinkled on the meal. To Kaheru, presentation of food must be something akin to a beautiful woman, who, if nicely dressed, will catch the attention of onlookers.
The fish fillet served over creamy sauce could have been one of the tastiest meals I have had. But it must be the practice that this chef has invested in the cooking craft over the years that makes him good enough to know the right measurements of salt, garlic powder or any sizzling to make a meal aptly mouth-watering.
To contextualise his journey, while peers were out and about in town during Senior Six vacation, he went out to his siblings’ homes to prepare for them meals.
One would think it was deliberate for this kitchen ‘prophet’ to receive acceptance back at home, or among his own before he could go out to sell his skills to more people.
Indeed at one of the cooking sessions at his big brother, Simon’s, home, someone enjoyed the food so much that she requested Mark to offer cooking services at a family function.
He gladly obliged and offered his best skills. To this day, he says it has been a journey of satisfaction. He gets contacted almost every weekend to cook. His biggest cooking gig was a wedding of 1, 500 guests.
“Two cows and three pigs were slaughtered and delivered to me. I had to hire more equipment and stay on my feet for a night in order to deliver on time as I had assured my clients,” he recalls.
As the wedding guests licked their fingers and asked for more, some murmured to each other what great cooking it was while others demanded for the contacts of the chef.
All he does is to put up his A-game as a chef. He has made friends and, won over hearts as a result. It used to be the norm for Kaheru to take out his family for Sunday brunches. Today, work gets in the way of such outings but when he is not working, he spares a Sunday or weekday to spoil his family or himself at that. In the course of enjoying other chefs’ cooking, some restaurants have left a mark on Kaheru’s taste buds.
As a principle: I am constantly reading. I enjoy trying out new things and I am a member of eight cooking groups.
He searches cooking websites to find out what chefs are cooking or what makes them tick.
He looks up a number of chefs: I enjoy Hehmet Demirogullari, who has worked at most of Kampala’s top hotels. He now works at Golden Tulip Canaan Kampala Hotel. Kaheru likes his passion when cooking, caring to explain things. He also looks for some chefs on social media to compare notes with.
I have particular respect and admiration for: Kavitha Sserunkuuma, a chef that also runs Kampala Food Network.
What makes a chef tick? It is passion and an understanding of flavours. Having the right equipment plus being creative and consistent are key too. A good chef keeps practicing.
Frown: I have tried to mentor others but many times people want to go for shortcuts which messes up the end product.
At least, at The Junction, a hangout he runs, the person who prepares pork is not for shortcuts.
His favourite restaurants: Sips n’ Bites Cafe in Naguru is for their authentic Kenyan food that is from family recipes. Le-pro Café in Ntinda for their tasty pizza, Tamarai for their generally good cooking.
He will drive to Jinja to have English breakfast at The Keep Café. In his words, “their English breakfast is to die for”.
At home: His family looks forward to when he will be preparing lunch or supper. His wife enjoys matooke, the son goes for chicken while the daughter enjoys posho and beans. For him, rice and beans, chicken or bacon are favourites.