What you need to know:
- Like Ernest, Gina Gikubu is also in catering; a business she has been running for five years. Her core business is weddings and corporate functions, though, once in a while, she gets invitations to cater for home parties.
- The 45-year-old father of three, who styles himself as White House Outside Catering, is a self-taught chef, and has been in the kitchen business for more than 10 years.
- This practice is certainly the one thing Robert Kamau and his wife Eunice wish they had known about just two weeks ago when they hosted friends.
Ernest Alufani is a busy man. He is so busy that if you want his services you will have to book him a week in advance.
A chef, Ernest has been cooking professionally for the last 10 years. And five years ago he registered Erama Dishes and went into self-employment.
“Cooking is hard work, but it pays, especially if you run your own business,” he says.
The Utalii College-trained chef caters for big occasions such as weddings, as well as for smaller ones like birthday parties or family get-togethers.
Ernest is one among a growing number of chefs who are reaping handsome returns as a growing number of Kenyans embrace the call-in caterers phenomenon where individuals — trained or self-taught — are invited to cook at home for a fee, saving families much needed time to pursue other activities.
Unlike in normal practice where one cooks for their guests while they wait in the sitting room or where one invites relatives (and sometimes the same guests) to help in the kitchen, this arrangement gives families ample time to entertain guests without having to worry about cleaning up afterwards.
“Food is the most important aspect in every social occasion,” says Ernest. “If you don’t get it right then the party might as well be a flop.”
He says that many people are increasingly enlisting the services of professional cooks.
“We do everything from preparing the food, cooking, to serving, so that you can relax and spend quality time with your guests.”
If you have guests, say on a Saturday, Ernest and his assistants will come to your home on Friday to prepare what will be cooked and to ensure that everything he will need is available.
“The bulk of the work is in the preparation – we wash and chop the vegetables, cut up the meat, peel carrots and potatoes – we prepare everything that can be prepared in advance,” he says, pointing out that in his business time is important.
“The worst thing that can happen is for guests to arrive and find the food not ready. I rely on word of mouth to get business and, therefore, I cannot afford to keep people anxious.”
If you are unsure of what to serve, Ernest can draw up a menu for you, and depending on the number of guests, he will tell you the quantity of ingredients. Weekends, he says, are his busiest, and on any occasion, he makes reasonable returns.
“We’re on our feet all day – what we do isn’t easy,” says the 35-year-old father of four.
Like Ernest, Gina Gikubu is also in catering; a business she has been running for five years. Her core business is weddings and corporate functions, though, once in a while, she gets invitations to cater for home parties.
She studied accounting in college but found herself in catering due to what she calls “passion for cooking”.
Instead of looking for a job when I completed my studies, I set up Gina’s Events Gourmet. It is one of the best decisions I have made,” she says.
“These days, more and more people prefer to hire a caterer, rather than request relatives or friends to help out whenever they have visitors, as was the norm.”
She points out that relatives and friends who promise to help can disappoint you and fail to turn up on your big day. “What do you do when the cousin who had promised to make chapatis calls you in the morning to say she cannot make it?”
The likely outcome, she points out, is confusion, panic, and lunch that ends up being served at 5p.m. By that time, the guests will be hungry and irritable.
“Unlike the verbal, non-binding agreement you may have with your friends or relatives, you have a binding contract with a caterer. My business thrives on my reputation to deliver, therefore, I have to turn up on time, and serve the food at the agreed time,” Gina says.
She points out that aside from the relief that chefs bring, there is also the professionalism and timeliness.
“My experience has been that when you have relatives doing the cooking, there is bound to be favouritism during serving, especially if you’re entertaining a big group,” she says.
Should this happen, some people end up getting a little food, poor service or none at all.
Gina reckons that it is scenarios like these that make her services appealing.
Her home visit charges, she points out, are based on several factors. There are those who request her to deliver ready-made food. Since she does everything, from shopping to using her own fuel to cook, it will cost you more.
“Other considerations are the number of guests you have invited, number of dishes you require, as well as location.”
She says that people have also realised that it beats the purpose to have the same guests you have invited to help you cook.
“You invite guests so that you can entertain them; so that they can enjoy your hospitality and have time to socialise with one another, if they double up as cooks, this will not happen,” she points out.
“Times have changed, and so has how we entertain. Nowadays, people want professionals cooking for them, not neighbours or relatives, as has been the case for a long time,” observes Chrispinus Osinde, who is also making a living out of offering this kind of convenience in Nairobi.
The 45-year-old father of three, who styles himself as White House Outside Catering, is a self-taught chef, and has been in the kitchen business for more than 10 years.
“We cater for weddings, birthday parties, end of year company parties, and for people entertaining a handful of friends in their homes,” he says.
He says there are also those who hire him to cook them an assortment of meals to cover a week, or longer.
And herein lies the solution for those who are either averse to cooking, or simply have no time to do it, but would prefer a home-cooked meal, rather than takeout, which is often more expensive and not personalised in any way.
This group, Osinde says, is mainly composed of single professionals in demanding careers, and young families who have no live-in help.
Charges depend on two main factors, namely, the number of people to be fed, and the menu.
The menu will of course dictate the number of dishes to be prepared, and how labour-intensive the meals are to prepare. The more elaborate the meals, the more it will cost. When catering for large groups, like is the case in weddings, Osinde charges per plate.
If he does the shopping and uses his own utensils, he charges more, but if the host provides everything, all he charges is labour. The minimum he expects a host to part with for a home visit is Sh3,000, if all you require him to do is cook.
When he caters for big occasions like weddings, he says he makes anywhere in the region of Sh50,000, after deducting all expenses, including paying his assistants. Not bad for a man who did not go beyond primary school.
“Thankfully, being a good cook does not necessarily require you to be book smart – all you need is skill, interest and creativity,” he says.
Before branching out on his own, Osinde, who has worked in various hotels in Kisumu, Nairobi, and Kampala, honed his skill by observing professionals at work.
“My first kitchen job was cleaning the floors, and then I graduated to peeling potatoes and chopping up the vegetables, but even as I did this, I observed the chefs at work, how they cooked, as well as how they presented their food.”
Nowadays, Osinde has people who do the cleaning, chopping and peeling for him.
“Food is very sensitive, and needs to be handled with care – hygiene comes first, therefore a chef cannot light the jiko and fry meat at the same time.”
A few months ago, he was offered a two-year contract as head chef in a newly established city hotel, an offer he turned down.
“I worked there for just three months – it just wasn’t lucrative enough, and so I walked away. I make more money in self-employment,” he says.
This practice is certainly the one thing Robert Kamau and his wife Eunice wish they had known about just two weeks ago when they hosted friends.
Eunice had given birth to their firstborn, a bouncing baby boy four months earlier and her friends were coming over to “see the baby” in keeping with their tradition.
Mrs Kamau, had requested her husband to block off engagements on that Saturday two weeks ago so that he could finally get to meet this group of friends – former high school mates – and then he could leave to watch a match at the local sports tavern later in the afternoon.
“They’ve heard so much about you, why don’t you say hi, and then leave? I want to show you off…,” she had sweetly told him.
How could he say no?
His wife’s friends arrived at around 1p.m., bearing gifts.
Robert’s plan had been to say hello, chat with them for a few minutes for courtesy’s sake, and then join his friends at the local pub. That way, the old high school friends could catch up and have some “women talk” without his overbearing presence.
But things didn’t quite work out that way.
By the time they arrived, the food – Eunice is quite detailed and gifted in cooking and presenting to her guests – was nowhere near ready, thanks to the demands of looking after the four-month-old baby.
“My wife and the house help had to alternate between looking after our daughter and cooking, therefore nothing much got accomplished in the expected time,” he says.
There was also the fact that their house help was wanting in the cooking department and the bulk of the task went to Eunice, who had to stop regularly to breastfeed the baby, who had not even been weaned.
Since it is un-African to leave guests to their own devices for a prolonged period, Robert was forced to entertain his wife’s friends, as she slaved away in the kitchen.
“After just a few minutes, we had exhausted every “ice-breaking” topic there is – the weather, the high cost of living, and what we did for a living,” Robert says, jokingly adding that he was tempted to talk about football, but was afraid that he’d only draw blank stares.
The three hours he spent playing host to six women he had just met, he says, are the most exhausting and awkward he has ever had to sit through.
When the food was finally served, he was so relieved, he excused himself immediately and even declined to eat, saying that he had to rush somewhere. He has a feeling that their guests were as relieved as he was. By the end of the day, Eunice was exhausted with all the cooking, washing, hosting and baby-sitting she had to do.
It is situations like these that have popularised call in caterers, chefs if you like, for hire.
All you have to do is agree on the menu, buy the ingredients required, and of course provide your kitchen.
It is an arrangement that a growing number of Kenyans are embracing at great speed — willing to pay the cost of hiring specialised cooking skills — in return for great hosting.
Take Stella Chebet for instance. Last year, during the Easter period, she and her husband Timothy Koech, as well as four other couples, rented a guest house in the outskirts of Nairobi.
“We all have young children, and wanted to kick back and just relax, away from the home environment,” says Stella.
But relaxing would have been out of question if they had to do the cooking and washing up during those four days.
“We wanted a real holiday, so we hired a chef to do the cooking and the dishwashing. All we did was shop for the groceries,” she says.
The guest house they chose also has a caretaker, who washed their clothes for a fee. This left the four friends and their families with all the time they needed to socialise and relax, without having to worry about what everyone would eat, and at what time. All that was required of them was to turn up at the already laid out dining room for breakfast, lunch and supper. She says that the Sh6,000 they paid the chef at the end of the vacation was worth it.
“Cooking and washing up are probably the most taxing and time-consuming household chores. It is a relief when you can get someone to do them from time to time,” she says.
And so, who does the cooking at these highly sought call-in chefs’ homes, we want to know.
“After a hard day at work cooking, all you want to do is put your feet up and relax when you get home. However, once in a while, I make my family special dishes, and when I do, I do it together with my children – I want them to learn how to cook too,” says Ernest.
Next time you want to invite friends or family for home-made meals, then you might as well consider spending a little more money in exchange for the convenience call-in caterers bring to hosting.