- This is the story, not the place,” reads the sign outside the Embark restaurant near Ngong Road in Karen.
- Working as a trainee cook at the Tribe Hotel under former chef Luca Molteni inspired his dreams.
- After graduating, he gained more experience working in Kenya, Europe and North America, but always planned to return home.
This is the story, not the place,” reads the sign outside the Embark restaurant near Ngong Road in Karen. The tiny restaurant which seats only 12 people on a semi-open veranda is nestled in a beautiful garden.
Here, owner and chef, Dennis Ang’ani, has embarked on a gastronomic journey of imaginative small five-course meals without menus and served al fresco.
Some might say that the restaurant serves high African dishes. Meals are certainly based on African ingredients from across the continent. However, 29-year-old Dennis wants to communicate something more, to touch his customers on a non-physical level.
“I try to inspire wonder, to create meals with a witty edge but also outside the range one would expect. An unfamiliar familiarity,” he says, giving the example of the ugali and spinach dessert. “It’s close enough to be grasped and yet still unknown.”
Born and raised in Kenya, a childhood love for football brought Dennis into the kitchen. He wanted to quit after primary school and become a professional footballer.
“I loved the sport for the game, sportsmanship and teamwork,” says Dennis. His father, who was partly raised in Germany, understood his sporting ambition but his mother convinced him to complete his formal education.
At 16, he watched a cooking show on television and was immediately captivated. “I thought it was like a football pitch. The chef is like the coach, the sous chef is the captain, etc. Dennis had never cooked in his life but quickly decided to become a professional chef .
In 2011, he enrolled in culinary arts at the IHTI (International Institute of Hospitality and Tourism). But on the first day, he was so intimidated, having never spent time in the kitchen, that he could only wash the dishes. Determined to overcome his fears, Dennis began showing up to school early “to do stuff in the kitchen,” which greatly boosted his confidence.
Working as a trainee cook at the Tribe Hotel under former chef Luca Molteni, inspired dreams again. “Chef Molteni followed suit, he knew everything about cooking and I wanted to operate at that level,” says Dennis.
After graduating, he gained more experience working in Kenya, Europe and North America, but always planned to return home. His vision was to open “a small, creative restaurant that had a soul”. However, finding suitable business partners and determining the business side was complicated.
“I didn’t want to associate myself with anyone who could dilute my dream and my vision,” he said. “Too many chefs in Kenya today are irrelevant and for the wrong reasons – the money or 15 seconds of fame. It cheapens the whole craft. He has chosen to go it alone.
To save money, Dennis privately treated high-end clientele for four years. He also hosted pop-up events on Saturdays in rented premises, cooking 12 dishes for 12 guests with different weekly menus.
This was the genesis of Embark which he and his fiancée, Yasmin, opened in March 2020. Sadly, it closed two weeks later due to the Covid-19 lockdown, causing heavy losses in the process. Unfazed, Dennis remodeled the premises and reopened them in November 2020.
The majority of customers, Dennis says, are enthusiastic about the menu-less dining model, but a few people “are rushing to give feedback without understanding some things first.” However, Embark can cater for special dietary needs with advance notice.
Meals usually start with an amuse-bouche (appetizer) such as kiwi fruit dipped in juice and cold brew coffee, with whipped cream and roasted button mushrooms. You can get Shiro fish soup, inspired by spicy Ethiopian chickpea flour. Or a cup of light blue fish broth with spirulina algae and a cod croquette.
Then come smoked trout with bamboo, ostrich steak with cremini mushrooms or chicken thighs in a spicy berebere sauce. Meatless dishes include red eggplant braised in Baileys liqueur and honey, or slider plantain burgers.
A meal can end with vegetable-based desserts, a traditionally fermented Mursik cheesecake, or flavored butternut squash or beetroot ice cream.
The wine selection, managed by Yasmin, deliberately avoids supermarket brands as Dennis believes you cannot provide the best experience by saving on costs. The average meal is around Sh5,000 excluding drinks.
“Save on waste, not cost.”