My all-things-pickles conversation with Elie, the head chef at the beloved Lebanese institution Cedar’s, went like this:
“So you take 10 litres of vinegar–“
“10 litres of vinegar?”
“Yes. And you–“
“Wait. 10 litres of vinegar?”
“10 litres of vinegar. And 15 litres of water. And a kilo of salt.”
This is the concoction into which Cedar’s dumps mounds of vegetables every day. When I ask just how many pickles they produce on an average day, Elie falters, turning to his supervisor and the restaurant’s owner, a gregarious Norwegian who invited me to visit the fjords before asking, you know, my name.
“20 kilos? 30 kilos? I don’t know. The people love the pickles.”
That’s the crux of the thing: Cedar’s makes some very good pickles. They’re delicious no matter what fresh vegetable they started out as. The vinegar brightens their colors; the pickles stain your fingers pink and green and yellow as you scarf them down in a way that probably wouldn’t be described as ladylike. Am I biased by the fact that I live around the corner from this fantastic restaurant and sometimes get psychosomatic whiffs of frying falafel and char-grilled eggplant? Possibly. But I know that on those sad weekday evenings when the contents of my fridge consist, inexplicably, of three hard-boiled eggs and a slouchy bunch of mint, I call Cedar’s. And the pickles are free.
Most of the staff, the owner tells us, has been with Cedar’s for 10 years of more. Kariuki, the senior headwaiter, has been there for the entire life of the restaurant–16 1/2 years–and recently had the new bar, which serves everything from Tusker, the local brew, to $120 shots of imported specialty whiskey, named after him. There is virtually no turnover, which is particularly surprising considering that the restaurant employs over 70 people, including one very elderly lady whose sole task is to watch over the children on the playground that the restaurant very wisely installed 3 years ago. Compared to the States, where restaurant workers are some of the flightiest in any industry, this stability surprised me. But why should it? I’ve heard it in every restaurant I’ve visited here: you find good people, you keep them. People gain valuable skills, it’s good work, and they stay.
“This is straight Lebanese,” Elie tells me when I ask about whether the restaurant has adapted at all to Kenyan cuisine. “Just Lebanese.”
A bit theatrically, almost out of the corner of this mouth, the owner adds, “Well. Except for the salmon.”
A quick look at the menu confirms this exception to the Lebanese rule: one of today’s specials is seared salmon with sour cream and cucumber over potatoes. As it turns out, the owner is a bit of a Norwegian cuisine evangelist. Along with introducing satellite telephones to Kenya (in a past, UN-sponsored life), the man has apparently also introduced many armloads of not-so-Equatorial fish to Kenya. This isn’t culinary fusion at all: the salmon and the labneh remain, thankfully, separate. But it is the exact sort of cultural fusion that we don’t think we could find anywhere else. Really: where else in the world does a Norwegian restaurant owner sneak salmon onto a menu otherwise determined by a strict Lebanese chef in a restaurant staffed by Kenyans?
Itching for the full details of Cedar’s pickle technique? It’ll be included in the print edition of Im/migrant Nairobi: A Cookbook. If you’d like to support us monetarily, our Kickstarter is now live and would love some love from you! Even if this cookbook contained nothing but Cedar’s pickle recipe, it would be worth it.