Laurent, the owner of La Belle Ambiance, rattles off his professional history as though it’s no big deal: he began working in restaurants in and around Paris at the age of 14, eventually finding his way into multiple Michelin-starred establishments. Then he left France to be the executive chef at a series of InterContinental Hotels; the Sheraton in Addis Ababa followed naturally after that; then, six years ago, he opened La Belle Ambiance in Nairobi.
“Why Nairobi?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, again matter-of-factly, “I had a choice between opening a restaurant in Nairobi or Paris, and opening a restaurant in Paris is nearly impossible.”
“And why leave the hotel world?” I ask.
“You go to a hotel in Timbuktu, New York City, Phuket, it’s all the same,” he says. Laurent was tired of the homogeneity of the hotel scene, so he did the opposite of conform: he opened his own place.
Perhaps this is an unfair assumption on my part, but when I asked Laurent what he finds most challenging about being a restaurateur in Kenya, I expected him to go on at length about the lack of French wines, cheeses, and bread. We did get to our little reminiscing session–before moving here, I most recently lived in France, and I do miss a nice round of Saint Félicien, my personal cheese obsession–but first, Laurent spoke about the tragic disappearance of traditional foods from East Africa. He described at length his recreation of authentic goat’s blood boudin noir, or blood sausage, and then waxed poetic about the disappearance of traditional sheepherding traditions in the Simian Mountains of Ethiopia.
“200 years ago, they used to raise animals there they way the French would,” he says, “always with the end product in mind: these lambs would lick salty rocks and eat rosemary and that gave them this great flavor.” But those practices are dying out, superseded by farming and herding techniques imported from, principally, the United States, he believes, and we are all the worse for it.
By now I’m really expecting our conversation to go in the oh-how-great-it-would-be-to-have-French-cheeses direction, but I am again wrong. His second most upsetting challenge, Laurent says, is the comparative rarity of exhibitions, film screenings, art museums, operas, ballets, theatrical performances, and other forms of capital-C Culture that one almost can’t help but stumble upon around Paris. Don’t get us wrong: there is music and theater and film in the city of Nairobi. But is it Paris?
“No,” Laurent says, definitively. “I miss the exposure to culture which you don’t have here. You disagree with it, you fall in love with it, you discuss culture. You have something to talk about with strangers. We take our kids to online exhibitions,” he says with a chuckle, “but it’s not the same, there’s no one else there, no one to prove that people beyond your parents like this stuff.”
I don’t know if I agree with Laurent on his estimation of the cultural depth of Nairobi. I saw the best slam poetry I’ve ever seen here; our bakery regularly collaborates with extremely talented fashion and jewelry designers; the Kuona Trust, a fantastic incubator of artistic talent, is just around the corner from my apartment. But I do think that it is telling that of all the things a Frenchman could ask for, Laurent’s first requests would be for more attention to traditional farming methods and more investment in the country’s cultural health. Clearly, this man has his priorities straight.
Finally, after the duck confit and the perfect espresso, we get to the if-only-there-were-more-French-foodstuffs-here bit of the conversation. But it ends with a lurch:
“What do you do about cheese?” I ask, hoping beyond hope that his answer will be something like, “Oh, we age our own gruyère, beaufort, and roquefort in the secret underground cave that I had constructed under our very feet, and in fact I’m looking for someone to take several kilos of it off my hands!” Instead, he just says,
“I am a sad person.”
For more brilliant quotations and reflections from Laurent–as well as the recipe for his duck confit, which basically prohibits anyone from being a sad person–get yourself on over to our Kickstarter, where a donation will get you one of the first copies of Im/migrant Nairobi: A Cookbook.