There’s magic in the air … and intoxicating smells … as sudden clouds of smoke appear and then disperse above workstations. Perhaps even some droplets of sweat trickle down under their hats…
Four gentlemen and one lady are fighting for the right to be called the region’s best. It’s the afternoon shift of the 2019 edition of Gorilla Highlands Silverchef and it’s cooking at its best. But my thoughts are somewhere else. They have flown from the capital of our region, Musanze, to the capital of my country of birth, Kampala…
I follow a lady in dreadlocks as we move from shop to shop on the outskirts of the city, heavy plastic bags in hand. She carries four big flasks of African tea, hot milk, black tea and hot water, and she hikes as far as the Shell petrol station in downtown Kampala, looking for customers interested in her mobile breakfast business.
“Mama Africa,” I hear them call her and I assume it’s because of the Rastafarian hairstyle, a spectacle rarely seen in the Ugandan society of the early 1990s. Or is the nickname rather warm praise for her cooking and generosity?
Our home is always open for people to come eat. As Mama Africa cooks for the hungry, her husband, a medical doctor, treats the sick. They are a match to behold! United Nations meets Red Cross…
I have always idolised my distinguished father but Juliet Karungi Masozera, the woman who gave me birth, is the unsung hero of our home. His feats are public, attracting my attention, but hers are little miracles, day after day.
She was the true backbone of the family, a wife of noble character and notable strength, despite her limited education. When they got married she was very young and my father was retiring but she took on the home-building challenge graciously. He relied on her. She put money in his wallet so we didn’t know she was the one truly fending for us. It was my mother’s snack selling that put us through school, not my dad’s flashier profession…
Her food creations unleashed distinctive aromas, animating the daily atmosphere of my childhood, teasing our nostrils as sauces simmered. Her Irish potatoes fried with ghee was quietly my favourite, while she was rightly proud that her groundnut sauce sent me to heaven. She taught me all about local flavours, about using basic ingredients like fresh garlic, red onions, tomatoes, ginger, red peppers and honey to balance taste. The results were refreshingly original; her African foods always came with a twist.
Our five chefs from Rwanda and Uganda are to strive for exactly that — an impressive meal that is unique and unexpected. They all have the same required ingredients to play with to achieve that goal, but which ones, that has been kept secret. As they set off to compete, beginning their carefully timed one hour in 20 minute intervals, they eventually uncover what you will see in the video below.
It’s Emmanuel Gonahasa first. Pablo, the vocal and cheeky main judge, immediately nicknames him the “dancing chef”. Gonahasa, 18 years in the business and most recently running the kitchen at Inyamat Village in Ntinda, Kampala, doesn’t look stressed — or even bothered. He moves with the music blasting from the loud speakers. It’s a joy to behold. His confidence lights any room he walks into, his presence is undeniable, his personality crowd-pleasing but his soul extremely competitive. He is also eloquent and passionate about his craft. Born in Karamoja and raised in Mengo, Kampala, this cooking genius represents Uganda with pride. … No, you wouldn’t want to compete against Gonahasa, he is intimidating!
As much as Gonahasa’s personality can make colleagues surrender in advance, the list of Rwandan lodges and hotels represented is scary as well: the morning shift featured two Wilderness Safaris crown jewels, Bisate and Magashi Lodges, and the afternoon belongs to Jean Baptiste Bizimana of the Kigali Marriott Hotel. Bizimana, my fellow countryman, originates from the capital but doesn’t have any of the holier-than-thou traits associated with such urbanites. His positive spirit is hard to ignore and he is undoubtedly brave to enter the fray — the winner of 2018 came from the Marriott, so Bizimana needs to impress. The pressure and expectations are through the roof and I find it lovely seeing him hold his own. He joins other brave Rwandans that have competed and dared to change the local “Rwandans can’t cook” narrative.
The third afternoon competitor is a lady. Brenda Katusiime is the head chef at Edirisa on Lake Bunyonyi, a rustic paradise on a peninsula, situated beneath a rural primary school. Born on the shores of Lake Albert, she was sent to Kampala for studies but life quickly turned a page and she found herself out of school, making a living as a nanny. She found joy in raising others’ children as her own and became a truly outstanding nanny — I can personally testify to that. Yet whenever she found herself in the kitchen, it was clear that she was actually meant to be a chef. I was privileged to be her first boss in the new profession, and Mama Africa herself mentored her. She perfected mouthwatering dishes cooked on a firewood oven, unique crayfish specialities and so much more.
Charles Kyomuhendo follows. Originally from Uganda’s Fort Portal, he serves as the head chef at Mount Gahinga Lodge on the other side of the volcanoes. His story is rather refreshing: after he pursued a white collar job, his sister encouraged him to consider vocational training instead. Her two cents were that the world was changing and focusing on developing practical skills was the way to go. Moreover, her husband was ready to unleash him into the culinary world, giving him an opportunity in Kampala. Charles did not only embrace cooking, he developed a passion for it. Mild-natured, a bit of an underdog and genuinely excited about the opportunity, Charles is now making the GH Silverchef audience wonder why he is spending so much time on stylishly slicing his apples… He is also pushing the boundaries a little by preparing a soup as his main course. Will this prove to work with the judging panel?
Our rules have to be bent a bit for the last competitor, Nicholas Okwera Nyeko, the host chef from the Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel… Nicholas has had it rough all day long, responsible for the eating needs of every person in attendance. But he has one major advantage: he has seen the secret ingredients beforehand, as he needed to be involved in setting everything up. This man from northern Uganda with an awe-inspiring list of training certificates obtained in Kampala and Kigali under his belt, is meticulous in nature. He is not amused to hear that his allocated time will only be 40 minutes…
I just hope I can become half the woman my mum is… I’m envious of how graciously she still oversees her household, of her strength, her dignity and genuine laugh.
Observing my mother preparing dishes was always a bonding moment for us, and made me the food lover I am today. Stepping into the kitchen is therapeutic for me. I can relax and create. If I am frustrated with a project, wrestling with an issue at work, or depressed by how my day is going … I cook!
And, oh yes, organising GH Silverchef is my little way of sharing what Mama Africa has taught me about cooking and life. It’s a humbling experience to see our event building chefs’ careers… Since we gathered the last weekend of October, I have read about our top competitors in national daily newspapers and watched them on TV programs — I can’t describe how nice it is to have a platform to celebrate their efforts.
The magic I alluded to in the beginning of this writeup was unveiled when the results were out: the three best rated chefs of the competition were all from the afternoon shift!
You will get to know them in the short video we have cooked up for you…
text: Isabelle Masozera