…which is how Clase and Jonah, the co-owners of Moniko’s Kitchen, met each other. It seems that, in Nairobi circa 2000, simply being Swedish was enough to form a social group. It’s true that the immigrant worlds of Nairobi can be small, even bubble-like, but I would hazard a guess that the Swedish club is particularly petite.
When we ask Clase and Jonah the details of how they ended up in Nairobi, at first we get fairly gruff responses to the effect of, “We just came.” Sandra and I, sitting across the table from each other, exchange worried looks. Maybe it’s true, the stereotype that you can’t get Norwegians to stop talking while you can’t get Swedes to talk to you at all? But surely we can’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap of making those kinds of nationality-based assumptions; this is a cookbook about immigrant cuisines, after all, and we’d like to attribute ourselves with a more-than-average amount of cultural nuance. But seriously: the guys are not talking to us. Sandra rephrases her question, while I try not to look like a bird of prey with my pen hovering over my notebook. I can’t help comparing them to Kendi, their executive chef, who just chatted animatedly with me for two hours.
At the risk of sounding like I can’t come up with a better adjective, let me say: Kendi is cool. She is so far the only female head chef we’ve interviewed at over a dozen restaurants, a percent that is unfortunately a trend across the globe. But Kendi has found the perfect balance: she is demanding without being an über-intense megalomaniac, and she is understanding without humoring the bogus stereotype of women being too tender to be leaders. She reformulated Moniko’s entire menu, inserting into it the flavors of her own culinary journey. She was the advocate for the recently-added burger and grilling station, which now produces many of the restaurants most requested dishes. She has trained chefs who had no prior kitchen experience who are now able to keep the kitchen running independently. When I ask why she doesn’t seek out graduates of Utalii College, Nairobi’s premier hospitality and culinary school, she says, “Having heart is more important than having Utalii.”
Another embarrassing thing to admit: though I try to suppress it, I am definitely prone to accent envy. Give me an Australian–or even better, New Zealander–to listen to, and I’m content. I love the South African lilt, and there is a soft spot in my heart for English inflected with Frenchisms, like that buzzing zh sound instead of th. But Kendi’s accent is simply the greatest. Raised in Kenya, she then went to university in England and went on to live in Saginaw, Michigan and then Atlanta, Georgia, with stints in New York and Miami, as she completed her culinary training and worked in restaurants. Her accent has hints of a deep-South twang, with that round, guttural r making occasional appearances, but she can also do a perfect New York City street face (which is, by the way, not a face I would want to cross) and, I’ve no doubt, also satisfy the Queen with the emphatic t in words like flexibility, wanderlust, and eating. Her life has defined the Moniko’s menu: there are the Louisiana-style pork ribs and the very-American burger offerings, but also classic French techniques from culinary school, spicy calamari sourced from the Kenyan coast, and pasta–which she mastered when working her very first job at Salumeria (post forthcoming!). And then there are two outliers: a pair of Swedish dishes that are the only things Clase and Jonah deemed sacrosanct when they gave Kendi the menu to do what she wanted with. Which, by the way, they were still not talking.
Finally, blessedly, Jonah opens up:
He came to Kenya straight out of college, on a sort of caution-to-the-wind, I’m-a-22-year-old, seat-of-his-pants decision. He worked in the Maasai Mara, a celebrated safari destination, for several years, until 2007 happened: a string of violent events around national elections caused a dramatic drop in the tourism trade (not unlike the recent drop following the events at Westgate Mall in 2013, which have also derailed many former-tourism employees). Jonah, in his own words, “had nothing to do.” Also in his words: “Nairobi 20 years ago, it was like East Berlin.” The quality and variety of food was lamentable, and he claims there was nowhere in town to get a simple salad or a light lunch. So, in 2007, he started a little café, where he served just those things–and people came from all over town to eat them.
But we can’t give away all of Jonah’s and Clase’s secrets now, as they’re so particularly precious in their sparseness. The details of the last 8 years–in which Moniko’s has become a beloved spot for lunch, dinner, monthly quiz nights, rotating wine selection, and Beers of the Month that knock the socks off of Tusker–will be in Im/migrant Nairobi: A Cookbook, which you can support on Kickstarter here.