John, the Kenyan head chef at Sushi Soo, has been making Japanese food for almost as long as I’ve been alive. 22 years ago, he began as a cleaner at Nihonjin, a (tragically) now-shuttered Japanese restaurant. After a year, the owner, a Japanese immigrant and brilliant chef, started teaching him to cook. That training lasted a full one and a half years and led to a 17 year-run at that restaurant. Visitors–even Japanese patrons–were known to remark that the food was so good, and so authentic, that “This chef must be Japanese.”
Now, the frequent tableside conjecture speaks to the close-knit quality of Nairobi’s immigrant food scene: “This must be the same chef as at Nihonjin.” And it’s right. After Nihonjin closed, John returned to Machakos, a city near to Nairobi, where his wife and young children still live, unsure where to pursue work. No more than a couple of months later, he got a call from Kim–who says he happily goes by Tiger Kim–who was in the process of opening his own Japanese & Korean restaurant and, not being a chef himself, was in need of experienced kitchen staff. He gave John free reign in the menu design, a liberty that is not granted as often as one would hope in the restaurant world (Dennis Hoffman’s portrayal of a demanding owner in the movie Chef is, unfortunately, not so off base). Now, despite the fact that many people come to Sushi Soo because of John, he speaks with pure and pragmatic humility. He’d like his son to become a chef as well, despite the demanding work and challenging hours: “It’s good to know that if you work hard,” he says, “you can become really good.”
You need a quick visual of Tiger Kim: I didn’t ask his age, but the man has the aura of a trendy 25 year-old who just might play bass in a moderately well-known indie rock band. He frequently rakes his shaggy shoulder-length hair away from his face, revealing arms as toned as those of the average member of a college lacrosse team. He talks often about health–his own and his customers’. He is critical of over-salty food, although he admits begrudgingly that people like it. He laments how cheap greasy mandazi, samosas, and chapati are in Nairobi, which means that many people come to depend on them as a major part of their diets. He eats strictly Korean food himself, and when I ask whether he ever seeks out anything else, he says:
“If you eat McDonalds, or KFC, or Coca-Cola, 10 years later, you’re gonna go die.”
Tiger Kim loves food, but he is not the person to talk to about the particular techniques and recipes that have made his kitchen so revered. Instead, he has a piercing business acumen that makes the stuff that gets the applause–the tender pork in the katsudon, the yummy fishy umami of their sushi rolls, the perfect broth of the agedashi tofu–logistically possible. He concerns himself with the restaurant’s elaborate meat aging room, its sourcing of a particular brand of tempura breadcrumbs and a whole grocery store-worth of other goods from Korea, and the search for quality seafood and meat from within Kenya. In fact, he makes the bold claim that the prawns, red snapper, octopus, and squid from the Kenyan coast are of better quality than what he finds in Korea.
Maybe it’s that fact that makes Tiger Kim so comfortable saying that he plans to stay in Nairobi for, well, forever. Or maybe it’s his assertion that “Kenya is booming the way Korea was booming in the 1980s.” In his mind, Kenya is the place to be: the import/export business is vibrant for everything from packaged chocolate cake to enormous meat fridges; there is a strong Korean community that frequents the restaurant, but other foreigners and an increasing number of Kenyans are becoming devoted patrons (although, Kim says, “they focus too much on the sushi, not on the real Japanese food”); he has a church, a gym, a family group of 10 people; and he loves the weather. In the course of our hour-long conversation, the weather came up at least a half-dozen times, including as a response to one of my final questions: Do you miss Korea?
“No. Even now, it’s very cold in Korea. The weather here is very good.”
I think Tiger Kim has more reasons than the weather to stay in Nairobi. Selfishly, I hope he’ll remain, if only to give John an outlet for his decades of training and give me time to try at least a dozen other things on his menu. But it’s good to know that we can count on Nairobi to continue providing sunny days at 27 C–and that we can count on Sushi Soo to satisfy our need for good Japanese & Korean.
More brilliant quotes from Kim, as well as recipes for the pork katsudon, executive sushi, and more, will be in the hard copy of Im/migrant Nairobi: A Cookbook. Support the book on our Kickstarter, which is now live!