It’s really about time for a post dedicated to the amazing Nai food scene. How is it possible that people all over the world go to Kenya for beaches and safari but so many just stay in Nairobi over night and nobody tells them how much there is to do, see and enjoy in this extra-ordinary city? The food scene is a perfect example so it is really with great pleasure that we take a deeper look at the flavours and variety that await a curious palate lucky to be in Nairobae! As you know by now, MiKE posts are always an interview to get a personal perspective on interesting things. For this particular post we wanted someone who works with food, loves food, works with restaurants, loves restaurants and can see the trends from the outside. Oh, and it has to be a very supernice person of course to be featured here. So, we went looking for Devna Vadgama, Sales Director at EatOut, a magazine and then some dedicated to the Nairobian food scene. Devna is all sorts of wonderful and wise and so it is with great pleasure that we share this conversation with Devna about the flavors of Nairobi and Kenya. Enjoy!
How would you describe yourself to someone who does not know anything about you?
DV: Since we all see ourselves in perfect light, I am a young, patient, focussed, happy-go-lucky woman that makes a living talking about all things food but in reality I am an anxious worrier that makes a living talking about all things food.
What exactly is EatOut and how did you find yourself working there?
DV: EatOut is Kenya’s first online restaurant guide and reservation service that provides menus, reviews, virtual tours, offers and event information for restaurant goers. EatOut was the brainchild of Mikul Shah, who when speaking with friends upon his return to Kenya from UK, realised that they did not have much information outside of the ‘regular’ restaurants they frequent. One of those friends was my husband (Devna’s husband is one of our favorite persons, Samir Dave, who describes himself as a “wanderlusting Kenyan hobo with an affinity to adventure, sunrises, sunsets and good whisky”) and during on of his discussions over dinner at home, I made a couple of observations which led him to offer me a role in the company. The rest as they say, is history. Target groups for EatOut is anyone looking to visit a restaurant in Kenya (or soon Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mauritius, South Africa, and Egypt).
What do you do at work at EatOut?
DV: My family and friends reckon I ‘eat out’ a lot. While this is somewhat true, as the Sales Director of a young and dynamic company, I spend a lot of time building and working on relations. I coordinate all sales functions of EatOut as well as oversee and contribute in any new projects. Since we are technically still a startup that operates like a family, my colleagues and I also regularly find ourselves learning new aspects and carrying out different aspects of this business.
When do you feel the most excited about your work?
DV: I love what I do, so pretty much everyday. It’s an exciting industry to work in and I learn new things all the time. I enjoy meeting new people, trying out new restaurants and of course have the social life of a crazy person. EatOut Kenya was a project I truly believed in and still do, it’s a great concept and has opened up the dining scene here in so many ways.
How would you describe the food culture and restaurant scene in Nairobi?
DV: Since the inception of EatOut in 2009, the Kenya restaurant scene has been growing at an almost dizzying pace. As much as we would like to take credit for it, we feel that the Kenyan diner is getting more experimental and thus the demand for good food.
What is the current trend on the Nairobi food scene?
I’d think with the festive season coming up, the current trend is festive food classes, fairs, where you get awesome seasonal produce and of course the ever popular bar culture.
(A great New Year’s guide from Yummy /EatOut can be found here.)
Tell us about some current projects that you are involved in at EatOut?
DV: Hush hush but Nairobi’s most popular dining event, the Nairobi Restaurant Week is happening soon. NRW has seen a great success (and of course imitation) since its inception. It has been getting bigger and better and this year we expect (FIGURE) restaurants on board.
We are also working with a local charity organisation who have been clothing and feeding the homeless. The tie up comes through an EGift voucher system, partial proceeds from which will go into the charity organisation. Look out for the Yummy Card offers next year, exciting things happening in the coming months! Yay.
What is your plan for the future at EatOut? Dream projects or goals that you can disclose?
DV: I am already living my dream. I work in an industry that will possibly never go out of business, dealing with chefs/restaurant owners and people passionate about food. A lot of my goals and collaborations are in line with the vision of EatOut. Having said that, some of the projects (and related goals) are still confidential.
Who inspires you?
DV: My biggest inspiration to do better is my husband, he’s always pushing me to better myself in every field I have ever been in. My parents are also a source of inspiration. My mum has always pushed me to stay independent. My friends who keep me grounded and are always there for me and finally my great team, who all strive to give the best they can everyday.
What are you passionate about?
DV: I’m very passionate about food these days, I love to try new experiences, cook new dishes and I absolutely love to bake.
What is your best general advice?
DV: I’d say give the best of you in all you do and you will see results.
There is an abundance of variety and interesting influences to be found food-wise in Kenya because of a history and culture rich in cultural exchange. What plates, spices, fruits, vegetables etc should someone visiting Kenya not miss out on?
DV: This is a great question. I’d recommend the fruit of the Rubber Vine, though here you call in Mbungo. It’s sour, though once you add sugar, chilli and salt to it, it’s the most amazing flavours ever. It’s available in the coastal regions. Look out for mahamri and bharazi as well, it a coastal favorite.
Nairobi has a massive dining scene, nyama choma is a major favourite here, so if you enjoy roasted meats, I recommend you try those, my favourite is having Mandazi’s or the local chappati’s for breakfast sometimes. They make an awesome snack.
Visiting any of the great lakes, look our for freshly caught fresh water fish, great with some kachumbari (salsa) on the side and some ugali to scoop it up with.You have to also try the heady Voi Pixie oranges, smaller then your traditional oranges, but packed with some serious flavour. The Matoke (Green Banana)is also a favourite, you can make it into a curry, make it into a snack or boil it and have with some salt and chilli. Kenyan food is generally wholesome, healthy and simple to make.
Ok, so if I was coming to your home for dinner and you would want to make something either typically Kenyan or the plates that you find most pleasurable to prepare – what would you make?DV: I’d make a costal dish, it’s called Katchri (crisps) Bateta (Potatoes) It’s potatoes in a tomato gravy, served with crisps, spicy gathis (Indian snack) and a coconut and green mango chutney. It’s a beautiful medley of flavours and each person assembles their own bowl, making it easy for people to customise it to their taste buds.
Which other cuisines are you most inspired by?
DV: Thai food for me has to be a great inspiration, love the balance of flavours in all the meals they prepare.
What has been the most memorable culinary experience in your life?
DV: My most memorable culinary experience was at a new place that opened recently. They got two chefs from India and the food was served in a medley of fusions and to see all the traditional meals served with a twist, was brilliant.
Where should we meet up to go eat something?
DV: Diamond Plaza is known as the little India of Kenya, lots of great food places there to choose from, shop a little if you like and also get reasonably priced clothing and jewellery.
How would you spend a perfect weekend in Nairobi?
DV: My perfect weekend would be breakfast in the National Park followed by a game drive the rest of the morning. Then have a lazy lunch, go home and watch lots of Bollywood movies, in the evening go for a nice meal, meet up with friends for drinks, dance the night away and spend the rest of the next day lazing around and doing fun things in the kitchen.
If you would choose one flavor that you think represents Kenya the best, which flavour would it be?
DV: One flavour isn’t enough, but if I were choose a flavour I’d say warm and sweet like honey.
What do you wish that people in the world knew about Kenya?
DV: I wish people knew that Kenyan’s are lovely hospitable people passionate about sports and socializing. You can find a bar, restaurant or roadside food stall within 5 minutes almost anywhere in the country. You can find beautiful sceneries within the cities but within 30 minutes of driving out of these cities, you will be greeted by vistas that cannot be matched.
Thank you so much funny, wise, beautiful, passionate, inspiring Devna for sharing the flavors of Kenya and Nairobi with us!