As Rwanda prepares to host thousands of high profile guests for the World Economic Forum next week, Silvia Bianco an award-winning American chef, writer and former restaurateur, on her maiden visit to the country participated in different trainings in culture, hotel food, tourism and hospitality.
At least three levels of food design were organised at the different hotels in the country. The Chef's trip was part of Esther's Aid visiting Chef's program, The New Times Solomon Asaba caught up with her for insight about the food service sector.
How do you find the food industry in Rwanda?
Well I have been working with the students at Esther’s Aid school for a week and I think they are really great. I had many invitations to different kitchens, and the work really went on great.
Already for the few days I have been around, I came up with many innovative ideas that allow use of local products in Rwanda.
When it comes to the food industry, training is very important. Being a senior chef what do you think are the key areas people training for the food services should focus on?
I believe when it comes to food, passion is very important. Rwandan people already have that which is very important. If someone is doing something just because it will be a good job then they will never be great.
That is true for everything because if there is passion creativity and the innovation come naturally.
In my own restaurant, I hired so many people over the course of ten years and there were some that were technically very good but there was no creativity for others. Once that lacks in individuals it makes dish making really difficult.
So you think creativity is close to good service in the food industry, but how would this link with customer care?
This is very important and it is called customer care for a reason. You have to care but again it goes back to the same thing that if you are just doing your job and you do not really care, that the customer is going to feel bad then that is wrong.
Customers can feel it, that someone is just doing their job without putting in much of a thought. I think that is the most important thing and the other thing is that it takes a certain sort of personality.
You want to be social. Some people are not suited to it while others are. So when you take in someone who loves interacting with people and is naturally social or wants to be authentically caring then you are golden.
On a similar issue of course, people have complained that customer care in the service sector is where Rwandans need to improve, do you think this is achievable?
Of course, the first thing I did when I arrived here was to inform people about the attitude of Rwandans.
I noticed that Rwandans are gentle, kind and specifically beautiful. Being gentle and kind is natural, I have yet to meet other people but at least I have not come across anyone that has been rude to me here in Rwanda.
How does the training here in the food industry compare with the government’s plan of promoting more enrollment in technical and vocational studies?
I think that is an excellent idea. I have been cooking the whole of my life. I was born in Italy and parents and relatives trained me. There was a passion and what I found was that where I really learned was by doing and that is true for many things.
Even doctors have a better future when they do things practically. In the beginning I was a little bit nervous but as we say in America that the food is the pudding meaning that if people come back again and again for a period of ten years, you know you are doing something right. It is already happening here.
The point is I learnt what I am doing by engaging in practical work.
What type of dishes have you taught the people since you arrived?
I taught them the technique of saute’ and this way they can use any ingredient they want as long as they know the technique. They know it already, I started with different groups every single day but once you master it you can. It is like don’t fish, teach someone how to fish. That is what I did here because with sautés you can have so many dishes. In this country there are many beautiful vegetables that are organic and if prepared well, it is better than seafood or meat. We made crostini and nyoki from potatoes that are like a dumpling, which is so perfect for Rwanda because potatoes are one of your staples.
All you have to do is potato and flour then you make a perfect meal which in New York would go for 30 dollars a plate. It is something that is delicious fills you up and costs little money. These people can now make incredible dishes.
Italy is known for pasta, US is known for burgers, what should Rwanda be known for?
We are trying to work on a national cuisine. The only impression I have and I think where the opportunity for Rwandans is to take the local ingredients and put on a personal spin.
That is how I became known as a chef because I used the basics of Italian cooking which is fresh ingredients, like you pick it from your garden and make it in a simple way but Italians are not known for their saucing the French are, so I taught all the people how to make sauces including the children.
There many sauces those students here have made all by themselves that are restaurant quality. They did zuchini sautés.
In a few weeks, Rwanda will be hosting the WEF, when it comes to such events; the food sector is really at the forefront, what do we have to copy from other countries?
I think first is the willingness to serve, which you already have. I know every hotel wants to do a great job and there is lots of willingness. I think in that sense you can surpass all big countries because in some ways we are really jaded. Rwanda has an opportunity from the characteristics of people.
There is a great attitude so the willingness to serve is there. The only thing to copy from the united states is efficiency and one of the ways we excel in that is that we anticipate what is needed so when you are looking at a group of clients you realize they like their coffee in a certain way in the morning, people are very particular about that, once you see that then whoever is handling the staff needs to communicate and say this group of people is very particular about their coffee or tea.
Let us make sure that tomorrow they have it the way they asked for it today so they don’t have to ask it again, so you are anticipating how they are going to like it the next day.
I think that is very important in hospitality.
How did you find Rwandan coffee?
I am in love with it, it is delicious and I wish all people made coffee like that. We have different roasts at star bucks, Rwandan coffee is also listed. So taking biscoutti with this coffee is even more fantastic.
Rwandan tea is good too. I like strong coffee and other people don’t so that is another way you can anticipate. I used to have my coffee with cream, if there was no cream at the hotel where I was it would make me feel bad.
People are particular for things like that.
What is your advice to young entrepreneurs who want to venture into the food sector?
I think most of the students and other people would want to get experience first. Fortunately, there is a lot of building going on in Rwanda especially in Kigali so they can get jobs at hotels and restaurants.
I told them that the biggest thing lacking is a labor force so they will have plenty of opportunity to train in the work force. After getting some experience then they can decide whether to start a restaurant or a café but not everybody is suited into entrepreneurship but those who are will feel that calling.
You have written a book and many articles about food and co owned Biscotti a much loved Italian restaurant in the US; what is your last message to people in the food sector?
I think that food is the platform that shows love and coming to Rwanda was my way of doing that.
I was the lucky one to come and I feel that I am blessed. For Rwanda as a whole, food is a common language, when you share it with someone you connect.