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How did I sign up to be a chef’s assistant in a Zanzibari restaurant?

Lukman’s restaurant, the most famous local eatery in Zanzibar opened in 2007 and welcomes on average between 600 – 1000 diners every day. I stumbled upon it by coincidence while flicking through Mark Wien’s blog: Migrationology.

I never worked in a real restaurant kitchen before but always wanted to give it a try and having read rave reviews online, I decided that I was going to join their culinary ranks for a day as a volunteer sous-chef’s assistant.

The next day, I left my house at 6.45 a.m. Stone Town was waking up. The hand-carved wooden shutters were closed and the doors of the souvenir shops were locked up. The morning was eerily silent. There were no shouts of “mambo” (how are you?). The only noise was the creaking of the old heavy doors as children crept out to go to school. Little girls dressed in black and white chadors, and small boys with their embroidered skullcaps were too sleepy to notice a foreigner passing through the narrow alleys of the Hurumzi neighborhood.

I arrived at 7am sharp and Chef Anwar (the head chef) had already started the business of the day.  We still had two hours till opening time. The kitchen was dark and gloomy, with cold solid aluminum counters, large commercial cookers, and huge steel pots. Due to the cultural etiquette, it was divided into two sections: meat, staffed by men; and, seafood, the women’s domain.  Dufeyda, a sous-chef in her sixties, was chef Anwar’s right hand in the kitchen.

Communication with her was difficult “I’ll speak in English, if you speak in Swahili” – she offered jokingly. Somehow following her Swahili directions, I chopped, smashed, and ground spices as fast as I could trying not to cut my fingers off.  Before long our Zanzibari octopus curry was starting to take shape – with 300 guests on the way at noon, it needed to!

Dufeyda was a pro at cleaning the calamari – in lightning speed, she cut each one open, gutted them, and sliced their sack to let the black ink drain into a basin. It was a tough act to follow and I wasn’t quite as graceful but I kept going until another big pot was full.

Every now and then, I was invited to the meat section, the men’s kingdom, where the novelty of having a woman, never mind a Polish woman, provided plenty of entertainment. I was shown how to cook biryani, chicken curry and beef curry. I was even handed a paddle (which seemed more like an oar) to stir a pot with 20 kilos of rice. At 9 a.m., we had a quick breakfast surrounded by the smell of simmering seafood, and then back to the cooking. Noon arrived in a flash of chopping cuts and burns from the wild flames and just like that my morning was over; our 300 customers were just beginning to arrive, oblivious to the chain of events which had led to their lunch.

Refer to our other posts for the recipes!


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