KIGALI (AFP) – Congolese chef Dieuveil Malonga learned his craft in Europe’s top restaurants, but said he owes his success to grandmothers across Africa, who passed on the gastronomic secrets that underpin his celebrated Afro-fusion cuisine.
“I travel (to) different countries… to learn from the grandmothers. Then I get these old recipes and I bring it to my laboratory here and we try with my chefs to give it something of a modern touch,” he said.
The 30-year-old from Congo-Brazzaville has visited 38 of Africa’s 54 countries, bringing back fermentation and other techniques, as well as ingredients that add texture and flavour to the dishes served at his restaurant in Rwanda’s capital Kigali.
The treasures sourced during his trips are everywhere in Meza Malonga (Malonga’s Table in Kiswahili).
Bins holding tiny chilli peppers from the Ivory Coast, pebe nuts from Cameroon and dried mbinzo caterpillars from the Congo fill an entire wall of the establishment.
Food experts have largely ignored the continent’s culinary heritage, with not a single Michelin-starred restaurant to be found on the continent.
But that may soon change, thanks to the efforts of chefs like Malonga, who co-founded Chefs in Africa – a website devoted to promoting the region’s rising stars.
“Something… is happening in Africa, and people are getting interested in knowing more about African cuisine,” he said in an interview with AFP at his restaurant, minutes before the dinner rush kicked off.
He stressed the diversity of African food, citing the example of Nigeria, where one can choose from more than 20 dishes on any given day.
Malonga was born near Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, where, despite losing his parents at a young age, he enjoyed “a very happy childhood” within a tight-knit community, according to his website.
At 13, he moved to Germany and lived with a family, later joining a renowned cooking school in Muenster.
It was a perfect fit.
“I like to eat, I eat all the time,” he said, bursting into laughter.
“I (come) from a family that likes and celebrates food.”
After graduating, he trained at some of Germany’s top restaurants, including the triple Michelin-starred Aqua in Wolfsburg, before moving to France to work at the InterContinental hotel in Marseille.
Despite his success, he said he could not shake off the feeling that something was “missing”.
So he headed back to Africa and embarked on a two-year odyssey across the continent.
There he found “the key” to his new life, he said. After falling in love with Rwanda – a fertile, hilly country with a gentle climate – he opened Meza Malonga in 2020.
Here, he said he revels in foraging for ingredients and meeting the people who grow the aromatic herbs and edible flowers used in his dishes.
The restaurant is not cheap – an average meal including drinks costs around USD150 per person – but his customers are happy to pay for an experience that marries traditional African ingredients with modern techniques.
On the day AFP visited, the 10-course menu included sweet potato-marinated tuna, shrimp with powdered cassava and, for dessert, a coffee foam dusted with crushed peanuts.
His clientele includes locals, expatriates and tourists, who line up for a meal that looks as good as it tastes – with chefs using tweezers to meticulously arrange each dish.
Diner Laura Tomini said the experience made her feel like she was “in business class”.
Although Africa-born chefs like Pierre Thiam have made a splash on the global food scene, popularising Afro-fusion in the West, Malonga wants to raise the continent’s own gastronomic profile.
By 2023, he hopes to “create something big” by opening a new restaurant in the rural northern region of Musanze, at the foot of the Virunga mountain range and its famous gorillas.
He wants the second incarnation of Meza Malonga to serve as a training ground for the next generation of Africa’s top chefs.
In Kigali, the soft-spoken Malonga works with 10 young cooks, mainly Rwandan but also Burundian, Ugandan and Tanzanian, who praise his openness to their ideas and his willingness to let them shine.
In Musanze, he said he plans to recruit and train many more chefs – with the goal of transforming the continent’s gastronomic reputation.