Daniel Howden meets the world’s most optimistic restauranteur, open for business on Jazeera Beach in Somalia
Hovering over a chair in his kitchen whites from British chef outfitters Bookers, casting nervous looks towards the food, Ahmed Jama is much like any other chef before a lunch sitting. He barks instructions at dozy waiters and says he’s worried about the shrimp. Speaking in bursts, he explains that restaurants are a “risky business” with no guarantee of success—even in Mogadishu.
As he speaks, 4x4s are pulling into the dusty parking lot out back and groups are settling onto plastic chairs, most of them drinking milky coffee from glasses. In front of the Village Hotel and Restaurant is Jazeera Beach with its rock islands, gentle surf and white powder sand. On the dining area’s low wall, watching a game of beach soccer, sit two gunmen dressed in camouflage fatigues and tracksuits, AK’s slung casually from their shoulders. It’s a city where you need muscle as much as a Maitre ‘D.
While some of Ahmed’s restaurant problems would be familiar to many in the trade: sourcing fresh ingredients, getting competent staff; others would be less so: carbombings and hiring militiamen.
His uncanny resemblance to Omar from TV show The Wire is played up by a shrapnel scar on the right side of his face. He picked that one up attending the reopening of the National Theatre in May. Two rows away from him was a young lady who “looked smart” he remembers. Then she blew herself up in the middle of the ceremony. “I would never have thought that kind of person would be a walking bomb,” he says.
The 34-year-old isn’t knocked back easily. In fact, he’s a marvel of positive thinking.
“It’s getting better,” he says of a city that until recently was slapped with the tag “most dangerous in the world” and avoided by almost everyone including well-off Somalis.
Now, the “weather has changed” as Ahmed sees it and he’s one of thousands of ex-pats making a return to the once-beautiful coastal city. He’s opened three places already including the Sports Cave in the city centre which is reviving the capital’s moribund nightlife with televised soccer from England’s Premiership despite a recent carbombing that killed one customer. The budding restaurant mogul admits he is “ambitious and looking forward”.
Village has already emerged from the post-conflict pack as Mogadishu’s best restaurant. Freshness is not really an issue. The Somali capital has the most expensive electricity in the world so no one can afford to freeze anything. Ahmed buys straight from the fisherman and concentrates on a menu of marinaded and grilled fish and seafood. There’s a flavour of the British West Midlands and Ahmed’s alma mater, Solihull catering college, both in his accented English and his Indian-influenced food. Shrimp curry is a favourite and a liberal amount of chili appears here and there in a menu that runs to lobster when the tide is right.
The result is a revelation in Mogadishu that is pulling VIPs—rapper Knaan has visited as has about half the parliament—nearly 15 miles out of the capital along a sand road that cuts through the mangrove forest and outside the protection of the African Union forces who last year rested the city from the control of Islamic militants the Shabab.
Somali cuisine took what it liked from the Italian colonisers and blended it with its own nomadic blood and milk traditions. An average meal, if one can be found, tends to blend three different kinds of pasta boiled to disintegration and flavoured with bone-flecked goat meat.
Watching the young men doing samba soccer tricks on the perfect beach as women and girls paddle in the surf in full dress makes you think that Mogadishu’s latest peaceful dawn may not be as false as its predecessors. But the Shabab remain only a short boatride south in the old port of Marqua and they don’t share Ahmed’s passion for Arsenal or international food.
“I choose to think that they’re not coming back,” says the chef with a shrug.
The father of three, who prefers for now to leave his kids in the UK, is already building on that assumption with a resort of the future with rooms off the side of the restaurant. His enthusiasm is catching: “You’ll see it’s going to get better. Next time you come here you’ll be coming on holiday.”
[Photo credit: Daniel Howden]
Daniel Howden covers Africa and some other places for The Independent (UK). Follow him at @howden_africa