By Anna Trapido
I am conflicted and confused. Is it disloyal to celebrate the opening of an avant-garde African eatery in Rwanda when similar restaurants in South Africa are closing? Is it tasteless to predict major international awards in the Kigali food scene’s future when Kobus van der Merwe, the South African chef-patron who won Best Restaurant in the World at the 2019 World Restaurant Awards, is sending pleading letters to our president? I hope not. Let us call it a glimpse into the brilliance and beauty of what might have been.
Dieuveil Malonga was amongst Forbes magazine’s 2016 30 under 30 where he was described as “the Congolese chef whose startup is taking African cuisine to the world”. Last month Le Monde newspaper called him “a prophet of modern gastronomy”. His fine dining food falls within the New African Cuisine genre which offers cutting edge, upscale interpretations of the continent’s traditional tastes. Having previously worked at several German Michelin-starred restaurants and wowed the gourmet glitterati at his eponymous Paris pop-ups, the Congo Brazzaville-born chef opened Meza Malonga in Kigali on 10 March 2020.
The chef insists that “this is a culinary laboratory not a restaurant. When guests come to us it is like a school. They eat something and they learn something. We see this as the beginning of a food revolution. We are innovating with African ingredients but we are also always respecting primary products, knowing their history, valuing what they are capable of past and present and engaging with what their role in modernity means”. In this case it means regularly changing, six course, 50,000 Rwandan Franc (approximately R900), wine paired tasting menus within which an Afro-futuristic continent-wide palate is presented. Rwandan ibinyomoro (tree tomato) salad is followed by Malonga’s take on a Cameroonian achu soup which is classically seasoned with Penja pepper, rondelle, pèbè and calabash nutmeg but also reimagined with the addition of roasted shallots, wild pigeon and nasturtium. Central African heritage beans are tossed in Gabonese odika (wild mango kernel) sauce and banana ravioli is served on Congolese bitekuteku greens. Evenings end with Zanzibari-style sweet, sour, spiced cardamom and clove roasted pineapple and a nod to the African Diaspora in silky, smooth, macerated Martiniquais rhum arrangé.
The timing was terrible. Eight days after Malonga’s restaurant/laboratory launched, Kigali’s Covid-19 lockdown came into force. In early May 2020 easing regulations allowed eateries to reopen and to sell alcohol with their food. The chef is admirably philosophical and optimistic about current conditions. “Being a new enterprise means that we are uniquely positioned to adapt and be flexible to the new normal because our old normal wasn’t yet established. Our space is large and our layout is malleable. Because of the style of cuisine that we serve at Meza Malonga there are only ever a small number of diners at any one time. Our offering is still developing so we are able to change menus and pricing to fit the situation.”
In recent years the Rwandan government has prioritised luxury tourism and promoted Kigali as a conference hub. Malonga explains that “in the long term I expect we will see significant numbers of international guests but that business is at a standstill right now which has allowed me to concentrate on developing a following within the Rwandese and other Kigali residents. I have had to adjust pricing a bit but it is working well. Our current patrons are about 60% Rwandese which shows that Kigali is a dynamic city with a youthful elite who are open to and ready for innovation such as ours”.
Malonga is a man on a mission. His business flourishes in the space where culture, community and cuisine intersect with sustainability, economy and environment. His work respects and requires traditional ingredients which are grown and processed using indigenous knowledge. He commissions crops from subsistence farming, fishing and foraging communities and in so doing creates and promotes profitable markets for otherwise endangered, biodiverse, heritage foods. The chef makes bimonthly trips to the Musanze district which he “appreciates for its astonishingly fertile volcanic soils and the gracious traditional farming and fishing techniques”. Each time he travels he takes with him his team of five young Rwandan trainees because “I want to show them the journey of product from origin to table. They need to understand that there are people, emotions, skills and a story behind every dish we serve”.
Malonga’s culinary philosophy is shared by fellow New African cuisine advocates including Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika at Accra’s magnificent Midunu and Senegalese epicurean icon Pierre Thiam (founder of Yolélé Foods). These chefs work within an ethos that Ivorian tea entrepreneur Swaady Martin describes as “luxe ubuntu” – by which she means “an African inclusive luxury business model in which all the members of a supply chain are beneficiaries of the economic value generated”. By working with African heritage ingredients within fine dining settings these chefs are explicitly aiming to break hitherto commonplace negative stereotypes and encourage the association of Africa with avant-garde elegance and excellence. In South Africa the aforementioned letter writing Kobus van der Merwe, Siyabulela Kobo at Kobo Cuisine, Maboneng (who says he is “hanging by a thread, exploring all avenues, trying desperately to keep my business afloat within the Covid-19 crisis”) and Coco Reinarhz of the late lamented Epicure restaurant in Sandton (closed July 2020) work within the same alimentary paradigm.
Fine food driven socio-economic advancement and rebranding has proved successful elsewhere. When Ferran Adría began el Bulli in 1984, Spain was still widely considered a second-class citizen in the European culinary context. It conjured up neither the finesse of France nor the comfort of Italy. By the time the restaurant (described by The Guardian as “the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet”) served its last meal in 2011, Spain had become the world’s hottest dining destination with a Milky Way of Michelin stars and an impact that stretched beyond haute cuisine into all aspects of the Spanish food industry. Nomanomics is a term used to describe the way that Noma (the most famous restaurant within the New Nordic Cuisine genre) has transformed brand Denmark. As Jan Olsen, CEO of VisitDenmark, observed in 2016 “the dining scene of Copenhagen has undoubtedly become our old kingdom’s best business card towards the world. In the past five years we’ve seen up to an 11% increase in tourism in Copenhagen and our other major cities are not far behind. Let’s face it; you don’t come here for the climate. You come here for the people and the food. We’re marketing very heavily on New Nordic cuisine”.
Perhaps the most directly applicable success story emerges out of Peru which, having seen the significant economic benefits and a reconfiguration of perceptions described above, has capitalised on what was initially a handful of restaurants serving regionally specific, high-end heritage cuisine. The Peruvian government has pursued a decade-long strategy of hosting foreign food journalists and judges from international awards. Where once tourists commonly considered Lima to be a pass-through, kidnapping hotspot on the way to Cusco, the city is now a major food tourist attraction. In 2018 Lima saw 2.6 million international overnight visitors. With those overnight stays come an influx of spending on hotels, taxis, and other tourism expenses. On a national scale, food tourism has transformed into a 25-billion-Soles a year industry (the equivalent of approximately $8-billion) that connects into many other industries and fuels broader economic growth nationwide. Plus, it makes Peruvians happy. A 2019 University of Maryland study (entitled The Growth of Gastronomy in Peruvian Business and its International Reach) found that 39% of Peruvians considered gastronomy to be their principle point of national pride, compared with 36% who viewed Machu Picchu as their primary source of patriotism. Seeing this success, the Mexican government has followed suit and integrated the Mexican National Gastronomy Promotion Policy (NGPP) into the National Productivity Committee’s eight foremost strategic economic sectors.
There has never been a more fluid time within which to transform perceptions. Covid-19 has upended all sorts of certainties. The nature of “normal” is being consciously reconstructed. Meza Malonga’s launch timing was terrible but it was also perfect. Now is the moment to reposition the way the world sees African cuisine and to reap the rewards therein. With each and every exquisite Instagram post chef Dieuveil Malonga tags, amongst others, @theworlds50best, @michelinguide, #visitrwanda and @forbesbesttravelguide. Watch this space. I predict major international awards in Meza Malonga’s future. Which would be/will be wonderful but bittersweet for those of us in countries failing to capitalise on our cuisine.