The Big Apple
East Africa As I mentioned before, I started baking at a very young age—always excited with the process and the end product. My family, especially my mother, was very supportive and encouraging, but the early stages came with their own mishaps. I remember once baking a cake at home; unfortunately, I forgot to add the eggs! It’s a feeling I have never forgotten to this day, and I can still play out the entire scene in my mind, even though I was only 9 years old.
I hurriedly took the somewhat-baked cake out of the oven, cracked two eggs and added them directly into the baking tin. I tried to mix them in so that they would blend, but it was a disaster—there were a few crumbs that had already started to form which looked horrible with the raw eggs and batter. What was I thinking! Needless to say, we weren't having any cake for tea that day. My hopes sank to my feet, and it was a memory forever etched.
There were times, however, when my baking results exceeded expectations. In 1991, I baked traditional cookies called “nankhatai” in the Comoros Islands when I visited my cousins. They turned out better than we hoped—even according to my own expectations—and were certainly a far cry from the cake disaster.
Despite all these domestic experiences and explorations, failures and successes, it was the Big Apple that gave me my 'big' break. I moved to the US after winning the green card lottery in 1999, having lived there previously from 1992-1994. I was lucky enough to get a job with United Airlines—might I add, flying was, and still is, another passion of mine. Living on my own and putting together meals on days I did not feel like ordering out, I started experimenting even further. And then, sometime in the year 2000, I started cooking for friends during weekends or on my days off.
To this day, my friends remember that pepper steak very well—strips of marinated fillet with red and yellow peppers tossed in a spicy tomato base sauce. This was a recipe I got from, you guessed it, my mother. I made it a few more times before exploring and venturing into other food items, such as burgers and shawarmas. However, as much as I loved cooking, I couldn't help being nervous every single time I was in the kitchen. You see, when you're not exposed to what you truly love doing, or when you haven't really cooked in oh-so-many years, sometimes the beginning is filled with an anxious energy that sometimes resembles a nervous breakdown. I really wanted my food to be good—so much so that my anxiety took over every time I was at the stove. I felt like I was trying too hard, and what I realized was that I was my own worst setback. The feeling of trying too hard can be awful—especially when you know what you’re doing. But I just couldn't help it.
A New Beginning
Over time, I started going through recipes, searching online and in books, as well as getting ideas and feedback from those around me. Then, in 2002 it happened.
I was asked to cater for a group of about 60-70 youth, who had requested for burgers. After the initial panic mode and the all too familiar gut wrenching phase, I made them. They were a big hit—and the first boost of confidence I desperately needed.
But it wasn’t until the year 2004 when I officially began advertising and catering for a larger audience, and later in the same year, The Spice Grill was born.
And so for the next year or so until October of 2007, I spent time making various dishes such as rice, curries, snacks—most of which circled around Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences. During this time, I received a number of orders primarily for private communal events. Food items such as "gulab jamun"—deep fried milk delicacies in a sugar syrup—and baklava, were on my list and considered quite popular. And that's where it all began... and how I ended up in Culinary School.