Here’s the young chef building his brand through culinary tourism
Videos of foreigners preparing Kenyan dishes stand out on Chef Robert Mwangi’s social media pages, Chef Young’s Kitchen.
In the videos, Mwangi is seen teaching different groups of people how to cook local delicacies such as chapati, ugali, nyama choma and Mukimo.
The eager learners are drawn from various countries such as Spain, Australia, the US, Germany and China. The food enthusiasts are on culinary tourism, and travel around the world on a quest to try out traditional dishes found in different cultures and to immerse themselves in the experiences of living in various localities.
This kind of tourism is common practice overseas, with countries such as China, famed for noodles, and Japan for its sushi, becoming attractive destinations.
Locally, Mwangi has specialised in local cuisine and offers cooking classes on how to prepare a variety of traditional dishes. A one-day cooking class costs Sh3, 500 per person and involves learning how to cook a Kenyan breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The classes are coupled with farm tours and trips to the market to allow the visitors to learn more about the ingredients used in food preparation,” says the 25-year-old, adding that the idea behind the business is to teach his visitors the kinds of food to expect in an average Kenyan home.
Sometimes, the tours also entail visits to local historical sites and towns to familiarise his visitors with the community. He mainly gets his clients through referrals, booking sites and his social media following. He conducts culinary classes mostly in Airbnbs in Naivasha, where he is based.
Mwangi explains that he works with booking sites and Airbnb owners to run his business.
“I normally sign agreements with Airbnb property owners around the country, depending on the location of my guests, since a good location with all the appliances I need is important in this business,” he says.
In a month, he can get an average of 10 bookings. Currently, he says, he is fully booked for the rest of the year. He ventured into the business a year ago after leaving a local television station where he hosted a cooking show.
“After my contract with the media house expired, I decided to venture into something different to keep my business afloat,” he explains.
He found himself offering outdoor catering services, preparing meal plans for his clients and hiring cooking equipment before later incorporating the cooking classes.
“Working in the media had provided a good marketing platform for me because I found myself relying on friends and customers I had made then, to keep my business going,” explains the young chef.
His is a moving kitchen, he says, which allows him to go where his customers are. He has invested in all the kitchen equipment needed to operate from anywhere. Cooking has always been part of his life. He recalls imitating celebrity chefs on television from a young age.
“At the age of nine, my friends nicknamed me Chef Young because of my prowess in cooking. I would normally carry the food I prepared to school for lunch,” he says.
Being a firstborn saw him prepare most meals for the family especially when his mother was away at work, a time he recalls was marked by trial and error.
“I would try and recreate recipes that I read about in a magazine or watched on television using the ingredients that were available,” he says.
After joining high school, during the holidays he would accompany chefs from his locality who hosted catering events, the aim to learn cooking skills from them.
He would later join a community culinary institution in Naivasha town after completing his secondary school studies in 2015 where he studied a one-year course in Hospitality Management. But after finishing his internship, he failed to get a job, forcing him to work at a flower farm, at the same time selling clothes to raise capital to start a business.
“After six months, I had saved about Sh70, 000, which I used to start my business, Chef Young’s Kitchen.”
He used the money to buy kitchen equipment and a chef’s uniform. Having a brand and a kitchen that was fully equipped made it easy for him to get business. He would conduct house calls and host catering events. After a while, he got an opportunity with a local television station to host a cooking show for about six months. While here, he got a better opportunity at a different television station and moved his show.
During the last two years, he has worked for three media houses, among them an international German Radio station.
He would later leave employment to become a freelance chef, a decision he does not regret. Since then, he has taken on short-term contractual jobs, which includes gigs from various institutions that got to know about him when he cooked on television.
It is this exposure that gave him the opportunity to cook for Arsenal’s Celebrity Chef, Bernice Kariuki, three times, Former Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, Phyllis Kandie, among other local politicians. He explains that his portable kitchen enables him to cook for private functions, jobs that add onto his income. One of his biggest achievements so far is being named the best chef during the Gala Awards of 2023 held in Nakuru County. The competition, which attracted over 15 participants from the county, saw him win the Chef of the Year Award.
The competition relied on the public’s votes.
“Most of my votes were from people living outside the country since they are my biggest clients,” he says, adding that in the competition, he showcased traditional foods.
“The competition taught me that food is a cultural affair, meaning that many people are attached to their diverse native dishes,” he explains.
Because of this, he says he has since learned how to cook Spanish, American and German dishes. Locally, whenever he is learning how to cook a native Kenyan dish, he spends time at the locality where the food is from to learn the cooking techniques firsthand.
“I also make a point of visiting the food vendors in the streets because they have cooked native dishes for years,” he says, adding that he then looks for creative ways to present his food.
Currently, he is learning how to cook Tanzanian foods and is set to travel to the country next month.
One of the biggest lessons he has learnt in the course of his career is the importance of having a lawyer to go through contracts before signing them.
“Initially, when I started the business, I found myself signing contracts I did not understand and got conned along the way,” he explains.
For instance, the chef recalls an incident where he was tasked by a hotel to train its kitchen staff, but, as he later learnt, he was underpaid, since the workload did not match the pay.
In another incident, a client that had engaged him to cater for an event refused to pay outstanding fees.