“You can never be 100% certain that the path you embark on is the right one. Doubt will always find a way of creeping in. The trick is to keep educating yourself and to never stop trying because trying is learning….the more passionate you are about what you do, the easier it will be to make your dreams come true.” – Telvin Muchiri.
Telvin Muchiri is an interesting 23-year-old chef from Nakuru. He is currently the demi chef (demi chefs serve as valuable assistants to executive chefs in restaurants) at Tribe Hotel. He is trying to figure out life and delicious dishes in the busy capital city Nairobi. We dive into the challenges he faces as a young chef and his commitment to physical fitness.
He takes us through the eventful journey of pursuing his passion from a tender age and his dreams of owning a restaurant one day.
What influenced your decision to become a chef?
I grew up with my many cousins and once we closed school, all of us would hang out in my grandmother’s kitchen where she would always prepare something special for us. Watching her make different flavorful meals, ignited a curiosity for cooking in me. I felt like a good meal always brought us closer. My interest pretty much started in my grandmother’s kitchen.
What is the earliest memory you have of you trying to prepare something in the kitchen?
My grandmother was quite strict so I did not have the luxury of experimenting too much. The simple tasks she allowed me to do, however, were just as exciting. I would slice the onions, cut meat, dice tomatoes… Being around that environment just added on to my curiosity and interest in cooking.
Did your family notice this interest you had in food? Did they encourage it?
I remember after high school I spent some time at my auntie’s place and she had a few friends over. She challenged me to cook a meal for them and I made barbecued chicken. I was nervous because I had not prepared such an ambitious meal before but they all loved it. I guess my aunt saw something in me since then she has really supported me.
Did you ever struggle with the decision to become a chef or was it something that you always knew you wanted to do?
It is rare to find a person that doesn’t experience some difficulty with major life decisions such as these. I went through some phases of doubt because I was going into a career that is not so popular in our society. Sometimes I questioned myself and wondered whether cooking was really the path I wanted to take but the passion always trumped the doubt. I stuck with my heart and found a way to make things work despite my reservations.
Where did you go to school and what course did you take?
In the beginning, I wanted to become a pastry chef. That’s the kind of chef that prepares different types of desserts from cakes, cookies, muffins and anything else that’s sweet and sugary. Upon doing more research, I discovered a whole other world of opportunities. I was particularly drawn to the International culinary arts course in IHTI (International Hotel and Tourism Institute) which is where I enrolled for my two-year diploma.
What inclined you to choose IHTI over the other catering schools?
I felt like at IHTI I would come out more all-rounded because of how dynamic their approach to training was. In my course, we had units on finance, foreign languages, mixology. I took Spanish and learnt how to make drinks at the bar. The programme there was quite extensive and impactful in many ways than one. Because it is an international school it also meant that I could get the rare chance of interacting with foreign cuisines and cultures. It is always an added advantage for a chef to be able to experiment with different and exciting flavours.
What challenges have you faced?
The course to become a chef is unfortunately not seen as a serious career choice. People do not appreciate the kind of training and sacrifice that goes into culinary school and other departments of the food industry. Society has misled us into thinking that the only lucrative and fulfilling careers are doctors, pilots, engineers and lawyers. It was challenging for me as a student when people failed to take my course seriously as they would normally do with white-collar jobs. The truth is, being a chef is demanding, complex and technical. It is not as easy as people make it out to be.
Did going to an international school give you an upper hand compared to the graduates from local schools when it came to looking for employment?
Going to an international school definitely gave me an upper hand because the employer is aware of the quality of education that a school like IHTI can offer. Most local universities do not offer culinary courses that are competitive on a higher level. The courses there might not always be as extensive and global like the ones we had at IHTI. That being said, I have colleagues that were in the same local schools, at the end of the day it is about your quality as a chef, not necessarily where you went to school.
Did you get to go for attachments while at school or did you have to wait till you graduated to get real-life experience?
It was mandatory that every student went for at least two attachments in the two years we were in school. I was very fortunate to have landed attachments at very prestigious and professional hotels where I had the opportunity to get a firsthand experience of what it felt like to be in a working kitchen and being around talented chefs and colleagues.
Where did you go for your attachments and how beneficial was that experience?
My first attachment was at the Windsor Hotel in Nairobi and the second was at the Dusit D2 hotel which is also in Nairobi. My experiences were different because each establishment has its own way of doing things but I always looked forward to the challenge of being in a new environment and learning from all the brilliant people I was meeting along the way.
My favourite of the two was Dusit D2, at the time it was still fairly new to the scene, but it was rated number two on the list of best hotels in the country. I was just drawn to the establishment itself and how easy it was for me as an intern to blend in and find my way around. Everyone there was nice and supportive.
As an intern, what was your role in the hotel?
The sole purpose of the internship programme in the hotel is to help the interns gain knowledge and experience in real-life settings. For me, I was involved in the kitchen under the supervision and guidance of the chef de partie. Hotels really take the internship programs seriously. We were required to carry writing material to document different activities happening around the kitchen.
It was all very professional and I don’t remember being made to feel like I was the help. I was actively involved, and duties were delegated to me just like my employed colleagues. That really helped me built my confidence as a young man and as a chef. At the end of the attachment, there was an evaluation report from the hotel which the school used to grade the final performance.
What is the greatest lesson you learnt from your time at school all the way to attachment?
I learnt of the importance of being in an environment where you have like-minded people pushing you and challenging you to be better at your craft. My classmates and I were always competing and trying to open our minds to new ways of preparing dishes.
I also learnt that you can have all the skill in the world but without passion, you might not make it. Being a chef is quite demanding from the usually unfavourable conditions at the kitchen to the early mornings and very late nights. You need to have discipline and passion to become a good chef. Looking back, it was an overall learning experience and I feel like the lessons I learnt will stay with me for a long long time.
How long after graduation did it take for you to get a job?
I was actually very lucky because I landed my first job before I even graduated. I saw it as a sign of better things to come because I had been quite excited about diving right into the industry while I was still fresh from school. I was around 20 years old at the time and I felt fortunate to have gotten a job that early because I am aware of how my peers are struggling to find jobs after graduating. Luckily, things turned out great and I got a good start.
Where was your first job and what were your responsibilities?
I started as a low-level chef at a local restaurant called Nyama Mama in Nairobi. Being a chef means you have to start at the very lowest level and you gradually rise up the hierarchy after displaying high levels of experience and knowledge in your craft. There is the commis chefs, Chef de partie, sous chef, head chef and finally the executive chef, which is the highest on the hierarchy of chefs.
Having done so much work in international hotels, do you still experiment with local cuisines?
Though most of my experiences as a chef have come from international establishments, I have also had the opportunity to explore the local cuisine. My first job was at Nyama Mama where we did a couple of African and Kenyan dishes. It’s important for a chef to have an open mind and be adventurous about studying different cultures and how they prepare their dishes, there is often something new to learn every time.
Are Kenyans receptive to the kind of dishes you do or would they rather have their meals prepared the ordinary way?
Well, it depends on who you are asking. Here in Nairobi, more people, especially at home, are learning inventive ways of cooking through YouTube and cookbooks. I think we as people are gradually progressing with the way we view ingredients and our willingness to experiment in the kitchen.
However, there are a couple of facts that people need to be aware of when pairing food with wine, there are certain wines that are supposed to be paired with certain dishes. Red wines, white, full-body… Each has a certain unwritten rule that home chefs should familiarize themselves with in order to have a complete experience.
When you visit local restaurants in town, do you get critical about their service and how they prepare their meals?
Just a little. Being in the same industry and working at a place where perfection doesn’t always cut it, sometimes I notice a few things here and there but I don’t like to make any fuss about it. If the people there are interested to hear what my input is, I would gladly give my two cents but aside from that I like to keep my thoughts to myself because I understand that I am in a very different setting.
Chefs work for long and odd hours, how tight is your schedule?
We do work for very long hours and we often also have night shifts where we spent our nights in the kitchen. I guess from the time I was at school I got accustomed to managing with the little free time I get and planning my activities according to how I am placed at work because sometimes I get home at 1 or 2 and other days I work during the day. It’s challenging to find the right balance but once you do, it doesn’t seem too hard.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not in your chef duties?
In the last few years, I have embarked on a journey of physical fitness. As a chef, you are surrounded with food every day, delicious fatty food that might cause a lot of harm if left unchecked. So I go to the gym as much as I can to get all that sugar and fat out of my system.
Chef or not, I think we all need to be kinder to ourselves by taking care of how we eat and how we live. Ultimately, you have to put your health first. When am not in the kitchen I am playing a game of monopoly with my friends or lifting weights at the gym.
Who do you look up to for inspiration and mentorship?
Chef Luka is a true mentor for me, I am currently working with him at the Trademark hotel and he been so gracious to offer us advice and share his knowledge with us. He is Italian and he has also introduced me to a variety of Italian cuisine which has been quite interesting for me as a fairly young chef.
I also look up to Gordon Ramsay who has achieved so much as a chef and businessman. One day I’d also like to have chains of high-end restaurants like he does.
Chef Kurtis from the restaurant “Grace” is also a person that I closely follow. I hope to emulate all the successes that he has got along the way.
What is your ultimate dream career-wise?
My dream has always been to tour the world as an onboard chef in a cruise ship for a few years. It would be such an experience, I would be able to see the world while doing the things I am most passionate about. Furthering my studies is also something I would like to do if I got the chance.
Unfortunately, there aren’t schools here that offer higher education in culinary arts. Then I would probably save up enough to start my own restaurant that serves indigenous and exotic cuisine. I do not intend to remain employed forever, I hope that when the time is right, I will build something of my own too.
What is your final encouragement to guys who are still trying to figure out their career paths?
It’s important for you to never give up and always keep on pressing forward in whatever field you feel might be meant for you. If you are not sure about the exact thing you want to do, try a couple of things until you find the best fit for you. The goal is to never stop trying; persist and when you are done persisting, persist some more. All the effort you put into yourself will always pay off when the time is right.