Have you ever cooked for 900 people for a wedding and have 1,500 turn up! No, unsurprisingly, me neither. Jonathan Groves, the superb chef at Ngala Lodge has. Last month, while staying at this beautiful boutique hotel in The Gambia, West Africa, I was lucky enough to interview him and find out more about his career, which has taken him to many different countries around the world, and about the pros and cons of working in Africa.
Kathryn: Have you always wanted to be a chef from a young age?
Jonathan: When I was 16, between ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, I worked 6 weeks in a hotel and then they asked me back every holiday. Then one day, while I was studying ‘A’ levels to go and do hotel management, the executive chef called me into his office “So you’re going to do hotel management are you?” “Yes?” “ Look at that idiot over there in the pin-striped suit…. I can see you have a lot of talent as a chef. Think about it?” So I did but I’d never thought of it as a career before.
Having trained at Westminster college, while working five days a week at Charing Cross Hotel, London (where there are over 50 chefs and the kitchen is 1½ km long) Jonathan got his first job abroad in the early 80s.
Jonathan: I had just bought a house and the mortgage rate went up from 4% to 14%. I was getting further and further into debt so I said to the wife “What shall we do? We’re going to have to do something?” I managed to get a job in Libya through an agency for one year. 18 of us went out to open two hotels and a restaurant, only two of us stayed the year. I knew I had to stay as agents wouldn’t touch you again if you hadn’t completed the first placement.
Jonathan then worked at the Barbican in London where he did after-show dinners for the likes of Princess Margaret, but after a couple of years he got itchy feet and applied for a job in Jordan, working there for the next three years.
Kathryn: What type of food did you cook?
Jonathan: European and international food. We did a lot of banquets , weddings and so on. Usually with Arabic starters and the main something European.
Kathryn: So you had the opportunity to pick up influences from Jordan and presumably Libya before that?
Jonathan: Not so much Libya. It was very new to the tourist market then. The hotels were actually opened for an African conference that never actually happened. Jordan was nice. The tradition is to get married after Ramadan so for 3 months after Ramadan you have wedding after wedding every single night with bookings for maybe 800 or 900 guests invited but then more would turn up and it’s an insult to turn anybody away. The poor bride and groom’s family would invite 900 guests and 1,500 people turn up. They can’t say no, but you get the hang of it.
Kathryn: It must have been quite a shock the first time though.
Jonathan: It was, although obviously I was working with other people. I was just a sous chef, a number 2 chef.
After that I spent a year in Paris, that was a good influence.
Kathryn: When did you first come to The Gambia?
Jonathan: In the mid 80s to the Atlantic Hotel. That was through an agent. A hotel would say they are looking for a chef and the agents would look for chefs with suitable experience and put 3 or 4 forward. It was my first senior chefs job, just coming up to thirty. Stayed there for 3 years. Quite an eye opener. It was a big, big challenge. In London and Paris you can pick up the phone and get everything straight away. The problem here, and even more so now, is availability, especially with fish. The sea is so over fished by big trawlers, most of the produce is going abroad. Prices are going up, crazy prices. Even between this season and last season the prices have gone up 1 and ½ times.
Kathryn: It must be hard for the locals.
Jonathan: Very hard for the locals. In September to the beginning of November you couldn’t get fish, at all. Lobsters are hard to get . Same with tiger prawns, I got some just over a week ago but since then I’ve not been able to get any.
Kathryn: The locals were telling me just this morning, at Tanji fish market, that they are having to go out further and further to fish and presumably that is only going to get worse and they depend on it for their livelihood.
Jonathan: Yes, even the local bongo fish is getting quite scarce now.
Jonathan then went back to France followed by 6 years at a casino in Knightsbridge.
Kathryn: What was it like working there?
Jonathan: Very good. They had a totally revamped kitchen, most equipped kitchen I ever worked in. The guests didn’t pay in the restaurant, they paid downstairs on the tables. You had to be invited to the restaurant, the big players, very exclusive. Casino is big business. I was working with a Lebanese and some French chefs. The kitchen was small but produced top of the range quality food. You had to be really good chef. Everything was made to order. A lot of things were off the menu. Quite exciting.
In 1995 Jonathan was head-hunted by the general manager from Senegambia Hotel in The Gambia and he worked there for the next 6 years. Jobs in Abu Dhabi and Dublin followed but then the stress became too much. He felt burnt out and gave up catering and sold motorbikes. After 4 years he started to miss the hype and excitement of being a chef.
Kathryn: What about the heat in The Gambia, it’s hot enough here anyway, let alone in the kitchen?
Jonathan: You get used to it! Problem here is the non-availability of items and equipment. The power surges damages the fridges and freezers and so on. They breakdown and you can’t say to people “You can’t have dinner tonight.” You have to get it out somehow but at the end of the day, when you have a good night, it is a buzz! You don’t do it for the money but for the buzz and excitement. For me, if it’s someone I care about, say if it’s their birthday, I’d rather spend a day shopping and a day cooking and invite their friends then go and buy a present. When you see the pleasure on their face and their enjoyment, it is a buzz, it’s like a drug.
Jonathan: I don’t go for over complicated, I try to keep it simple. If you’ve got something beautiful, like the fish you have here, you don’t want to spoil it with an over complicated sauces.
Kathryn: How many do you have working in the kitchen here at Ngala Lodge.
Jonathan: 10 cooks, you have to find people’s strong points. You have to find what actually motivates them. It’s quite hard sometimes. Then again, a guy who used to work with me at Coconut Residence I got to work down here. I wanted a sous chef but no one wanted to take responsibility. I always thought he was a bit laid back, a bit casual and then in August I said “I’m going on leave, you’ve got the chance to prove yourself now. You’ve got 6 weeks to prove yourself.” And he really stepped up. I was in Australia and we had email contact. He asked me this and he asked me that. We were quite busy and he really came through.
There was another guy, a cleaner in Senegambia. He came to me one day and asked if he could have a chance. “Yeh, Ok. It’s hard. I’ll push you. It won’t be easy. I’ll really push you.”
So he came to work in the kitchen. He was very quiet. He came to work early in the morning and left late at night. He never complained about the hours. Never asked about more money or whatever. After I left Senegambia I heard he was promoted up to number three chef. Then the hotel laid him off for the rainy season. The chef from the Sheraton asked him to come over and help for busy functions and he ended up being their number three chef. The number two chef left and went to work in Dubai. The number one chef , who was Algerian, went back to Algeria for three months. So he ended up running the kitchen on his own. I heard he’s doing really well. For me that’s a great sense of achievement. That he’s actually done something. It’s the same with the sous chef at the Atlantic. He took over from me in 91 and he’s the chef there now. He normally goes to the States for the rainy season and does the high season back here. There’s a few guys around that really have it.
Kathryn: Although you’ve worked in many different places you keep returning to The Gambia.
Jonathan: I fell in love with The Gambia when I first came here. I bought a piece of land in ‘91 and did something I’ve always wanted to do. I designed and built my own house. No architect involved. It’s pretty different. I had it open, the year before last, for a year as a restaurant. The theme was you come to my house to eat. You don’t come to a restaurant. And at the centre of the house is the kitchen. Literally right in the centre. I wasn’t going for the tourist market, I was going for the local market here. Only word of mouth. No walk ins, only bookings. It really took off but then we went into the rainy season. The rains were pretty bad. I got a job in Sweden for 12 weeks. My son lives in Norway so it was a good chance to pop over and see him. I was supposed to go for 12 weeks but stayed for 4 ½ months. When I came back I had big problems with the roof. In the meantime, I asked around and Peter asked me to come and work here. So I agreed to work here for 4 months until the last flight back to Sweden for the summer. So here I am.
If you are interested in cuisine in The Gambia there will be more posts on this coming soon including the wonderful day I spent learning to cook the traditional Wolof dish, fish benechin, and a review of a great new Gambian cook book where I’ll be selecting and sharing my favourite recipe with you.