Chef Lesiamon Sempele.

Chef Lesiamon Sempele.

| Pool

Lesiamon: Chef putting Kenya on world map

What you need to know:

  • Chef Les says he grew up watching cooking shows and always wanted to be on the other side of the screen.
  • He has been involved in TV commercials, the latest of which included ads for KCB and ICEA Lion.

Lesiamon Ole Sempele is the runner-up in the just concluded “House Of Chefs” reality TV show on DSTV’s Honey TV channel. The competition ran for eight weeks and pitted the 29-year-old Kenyan against seven other chefs from South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Les, as he likes to refer himself as, got a random DM (direct message) on Instagram (IG) from a lady who said she was working with Media 24, a South African network company. She informed him that they were shortlisting for a competition to be held in South Africa.

She had come across his profile on the platform and felt that he would be a good fit for it and gave him a list of the criteria he needed to meet. He submitted a video about himself and he was called up a few weeks and informed he was shortlisted to represent Kenya in House of Chefs.

“This show is like Big Brother and Master Chef combined. It’s a recording of how chefs who know nothing about each other are put in a house together. The first half of the day is a group challenge. Two groups and you have to interpret the theme of the day. You are judged based on your ability to work in a group. Everyone from the losing team is put up on the list for possible elimination. You can be exempt from elimination if you win the solo challenge afterwards. The contestants are the ones deciding who leaves by voting on the WhatsApp group during dinner,” says Les.

Les never came up for elimination. He was beaten to the competition’s $5, 000 (Sh552, 500) prize money by Ghanaian Joseph Odoom. The winner of the competition was decided by South African celebrity chef Siba Mtongana, the show’s judge.

Les just showed up to perform. He did not see the need for alliances. His strong character and no-nonsense stance saw him not received well by the other contestants.

“I’ve gotten here by having to work harder than a lot of people. Some people got a lot points because of being in groups. Whenever I came up for elimination it was because of my group members. There is no need for me to pamper anyone, because I see no grey areas. Therefore, I had to work hard on the solo challenges,” says Les, stating they would shoot from 7am to 1:45am.

Chef Lesiamon Sempele

Chef Lesiamon Sempele.

Photo credit: Pool

Chef Les believes he couldn’t have lost to a better chef than Odoom, but he has been humbled by the overwhelming support he had from different parts of the continent and also with what he was capable of creating in under an hour; especially with Odoom having the advantage of picking the ingredients for the starters and 15-minute time advantage on the dessert preparations during the finale.

However, he feels that the show would benefit from having at least three judges who would bring in varied opinions. Though he says he picked up the judge’s extreme humility despite being celebrated all over the continent.

“She’ll be in a room but you’ll notice that this isn’t your average Jill. She’s been able to establish her restaurant in a spot where she’s the only Black owner while in a male-dominated industry,” he says of Siba.

This isn’t Chef Les’ first time in front of the camera. He has been involved in TV commercials, the latest of which included ads for KCB and ICEA Lion, always playing as a chef. He has also been hosted on local and international shows for his prowess in the kitchen. Chef Les also looks every bit showbiz, besides being very good at his profession: his high top but fresh haircut, his styled beard, tatted up arms and a fit physique.

“I grew up watching cooking shows and always wanted to be on the other side of the screen. I used to watch “Mke Nyumbani” and being recorded while cooking looked very cool,” says Les.

Watching Gordon Ramsey’s “Hell’s Kitchen” Friday nights on NTV showed a completely different side from the normal subtle cooking shows he had watched with Martha Stewart and “Let’s Cook” with Susan Kamau.

But it took hard work for Les’ dream to come true. In his tenth year in the industry, his passion almost didn’t take off. After clearing high school, his parents were unable to afford fees for him to join Utalii College in 2011.

Chef Lesiamon Sempele

Chef Lesiamon Sempele.

Photo credit: Pool

Les decided to do supermarket runs, queue in line to pay bills, wash cars for friends and family at a fee. He also got a small internship at an eatery at Village Market called Pomodoro. The owner’s children were being taught by Chef Les’ sister and he asked if he expressed to him his desire to be a chef.

For three months, he would gain his first kitchen experience while earning Sh1, 500 per month. Hardly enough for the fare from Bahati, Nairobi, he says the experience gained was invaluable.

From the sums he managed to collect as payment from his efforts and with a loan from a friend, he went back to try the hospitality training institution. This time, he found some “redtape” keeping him out.

“It wasn’t easy to get into the main programmes that would take two years, back then, without knowing someone there. I did a short course on cake making and decoration. The month-long learning programme cost Sh30,000,” remembers Les.

After seeing his drive, his sister and brother sponsored Les to do a full chef’s course at Top Chef in Westlands. It involved a year of training and another year of interning, both done in six-month intervals. The course was intense and a contract with the school disallowed students from being in employment.

Les’ first internship was at Fairmont The Norfolk. They retained him as a casual chef after the internship. Les, who was also baking at night to earn his pocket money, would go to school from 8am to 3:30pm, then go on shift till midnight. He then had to start another internship at The Tribe, where he was also taken up as a casual.

In 2014, having finished his internship at The Tribe but still on casual employment after having graduated, he was poached by Sankara to be a full time chef. A chef’s job demands a lot. Even though contracts say shifts are eight hours, chefs have to be in earlier than anyone else in order to have meals ready by the time guests walk in.

Chef Lesiamon Sempele

Chef Lesiamon Sempele (right) when he was executive chef at Nyama Mama Restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

Usually Les finds himself putting in 12-hour shifts. The rigours also require one to be in good shape and help you value real social ties. If you have to work six days a week, you would need to have someone who is mature enough to understand the environment you are in.

“You’ll need someone who is as busy as or even busier than you are. For me fitness was one of the things I had to turn to. If you’re not equipped to walk, run and stand while carrying loads, it’s going to be difficult for you,” says Chef Les.

Les has also worked on a cruise ship, Celebrity Cruises under Royal Caribbean Company, for a year. This was one of the toughest jobs. The limitation on space means that one is on shift almost for the entirety of the time, save for when the ship docks at different country.

Being in the middle of nowhere and sometimes facing harsh elements, gave him more connection with his spirituality. He encountered a lot of dishes he had never made before, but how fast you see and replicate preparations of meals is what defines a good chef. This experience was exactly why Chef Les joined the industry.

Then in 2015, he joined Nyama Mama. He quit the job 5 months ago to pursue his own ventures. Aiming to be Africa’s Gordon Ramsey, Chef Les is currently freelancing to promote Kenyan food culture through different productions and creating online content, working with various brands like Hop House.

He is also creating food experiences by hosting dinners and cooking privately for individuals as well as being a guest chef at different establishments. Two weeks ago, he was a guest chef at a spot in Kampala, Uganda and will be moving there at the end of the month. He’s also a consultant for kitchen design, layout and equipment acquisitions for restaurants.

Chef Lesiamon Sempele

Chef Lesiamon Sempele (right) when he was executive chef at Nyama Mama Restaurant in Westlands, Nairobi.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

Chef Les remembers Chef Zachary, the executive sous chef at Fairmont who later became his boss at Nyama Mama, Luca Molteni, the executive chef at The Tribe, John Murray and Stefan, who had a very big impact on his growth.

One of the biggest and most defining moments of his life was when he cooked for the late Anthony Bourdain and they had a sit-down conversing on life and the industry. He’s cooked and met other celebrities and high profile people like Chronixx, W Kamau Bell, 2 Chianz, Neyo, US politician John Kerry, and Air force pilots who were part of Obama’s delegation in 2015.

“Serving the who-is-who and seeing how successful they are and operate, makes you want to be better and get to where they are. The entry level pay, like in any other industry, is horrible but your experience will get you to where you need to be. Once you get to a hotel that performs well, service charge and tips can double or triple your basic salary,” sums Les, hoping to one day be part of the creators of an African culinary curriculum with our own industry standards.

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