During our recent trip to the Maldives we came across a chef that is creating some of the most amazing dishes we’ve had in a long time. The taste of the food at Tribal Restaurant at NIYAMA Resort impressed us so much that we basically forced Chef Ken Gundu to sit down and chat with us.
Chef Ken Gundu – Executive Chef at Tribal Restaurant
The Tribal menu offers items such as: Warhog Cutlets smothered in cape mustard, Loin of African Karoo lamb with wild bush rosemary and garlic, Nile Perch Tikin Xic (prepared the traditional Maya style), Bush Pig and cabbage soup, Warm Ostrich Babotie, Mekong River Squid, and African Cast Iron Potjies such as Springbok slow cooked for 6 hours over coals with root vegetables. We never expected to see Warthog, Springbok, and Ostrich on a menu in the Maldives…and especially items like these cooked to perfection!
The Tribal restaurant menu gives some detail of Chef Ken and the restaurant by saying, “Tribal is a dramatic and sensory fusion of experiences drawing rich inspirations from South East Asian, Central and South American, and African tribal cuisines, ethnicity, and sensations.” The menu goes on to say that “Drawing upon his vast experience Chef Ken, with an infusion of inspiration from his fellow colleagues here at NIYAMA, has created an authentic culinary journey taking food back to the raw basic unit – this is the Tribal way.”
Entrance to Tribal
While the menu gives a nice explanation, we wanted to get more detail from Chef Ken himself. Chef Ken Gundu was nice enough to sit down with us and chat about how he ended up in the Maldives and how he goes about creating such terrific meals.
Lindsey: Growing up in Southern Africa, how did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
Chef Ken: Originally I wanted to join the air force, but my mom was really against it. While waiting for my high school results I started a hospitality apprenticeship. I thought I would try the apprenticeship for a year and if something else came up I would leave, but ever since then I have been a chef.
Lindsey: Where did you do your apprenticeship program?
Chef Ken: I did my apprentice with Sun International in Zimbabwe (Sun International operates a number of hotels in Africa). They had a really good apprenticeship program back then. At that time they employed you and they sponsored you and sent you to college and to hotel school. During my vacation time from school I would go back and work for these hotels and moved around the country training. After completing my apprenticeship with them I spent 2 more years with them.
Lindsey: Where did you go after that?
Chef Ken: I then joined 3 Cities which is also quite big and a very famous restaurant in Victoria Falls called Boma. After that, I went back home to Botswana to work. I was the executive chef at Chobe Chilwero Lodge and after that A&K asked me to take over the region as Regional Executive Chef. I spent three years with A&K.
Chef Ken in action at Tribal
Lindsey: That is quite impressive. Where did you go after Botswana?
Chef Ken: After that I moved to Central America…to Belize. I did the pre-opening of Machaka Hills (now Belcampo Belize) which is on 12,000 acres of farmland and it was all organic food strictly from the land to the plate. You could go to the market and buy fresh fish. It was really quite interesting.
Lindsey: Was that different than Botswana, having access to so much farmland, organic food, and fresh fish?
Chef Ken: It was really different. In Belize you did a lot of foraging. It was a new cuisine to me. There is a lot of Mexican influence. So I decided to learn the local cuisine…so how to make tortillas from scratch, chocolate from scratch, about the local cheeses, that sort of thing which I was really quite interested in. It brought a different dimension to my culinary skills. Instead of sticking to the traditional ways of cooking, it just changed and that is the same concept that I brought to Tribal, some of the African concepts and some of the concepts I learned in Central America which is really cool.
Lindsey: We’ve been to many resorts in the Indian Ocean and your cuisine is so exceptional and interesting.
Chef Ken: Thank you. This is my first time in the Maldives, I haven’t worked at other resorts, I haven’t seen what they do. I just came here and I said this is the concept I’m doing. I just came here and am working as hard as I can.
Walkway leading in to Tribal Restaurant
Lindsey: How did you find out about an opening in the Maldives and how did Tribal come about?
Chef Ken: Brian the General Manager recruited me. I had worked with him in Botswana and Belize. When he came to Maldives he told me about this concept. Brian had an idea for the restaurant and I helped steer them into the restaurant it is now. Tribal probably would have ended up a little bit differently than what it is now. That’s how we came up with Tribal. It is from the different tribes of the World.
Lindsey: How is it for you living on an island? I’m sure it is different.
Chef Ken: I’ve been here for 8 months now. It’s different. It’s different. Initially it was really quite difficult in pre-opening (before guests were at the resort) trying to adapt and adjust. It’s difficult especially before you open. The moment we opened, I was preoccupied with work and now I don’t think about much else, which is really good as I don’t have too many disruptions or distractions and just concentrate on making Tribal a great restaurant. Now that Tribal and NIYAMA are opened it is good. I do get vacation every couple months.
Lindsey: This cuisine is different than other restaurants in the Maldives. How did this work in training staff?
Chef Ken: I spent a lot of time training staff. They had never heard of this food. They had never seen this food. It was all new to them. I’m from a training background. I’ve taught in technical colleges. Training is a big deal and as long as someone is willing and has a brain it is possible to train them.
Lindsey: Now moving on to the food, how do you get Warthog to the Maldives or Springbok or any meat for that matter?
Chef Ken: It was really quite a challenge. It was a challenge! Because I’ve worked in Southern Africa I still have my contacts so it was a matter of talking to the suppliers and getting them to supply us. The World is so global…you can get almost anything. I really do bulk up my orders and get shipments from South Africa. It goes via Dubai and then to the Maldives (on Emirates Airlines).
Warthog and Sausages on display at Tribal
Lindsey: It can’t be cheap to import food from South Africa.
Chef Ken: Of course. Definitely it’s not cheap. Because it is still reasonably priced in South Africa, it’s not too bad. The freight gets you, but bulking up eases the shipments. I order 3-4 months supply as it makes the logistics easier. I do a lot of planning.
Lindsey: Once the food gets to the Maldives, how does it get to the resort?
Chef Ken: We have a refrigerated boat with a freezer and chiller. All our vegetables are chilled items as well. We get two shipments twice a week. Vegetables aren’t a problem because we do get two shipments a week.
Lindsey: Do vegetables come from Sri Lanka?
Chef Ken: Some from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Australia, some locally. Sri Lanka and Thailand being the main ones.
Vegetables on display at Tribal
Lindsey: How about Steaks?
Chef Ken: Also from South Africa. 90% from South Africa with a little from Australia. We had the time in pre-opening to source from South Africa and try the samples. It was challenging but we had time to sort it out.
Steaks on display at Tribal
Lindsey: What days of the week is Tribal open?
Chef Ken: It is open 7 days a week for dinner. One of the nights we do a beach BBQ outside of Tribal with less emphasis on meat and more seafood and creole. Again I use a lot of influence from Caribbean and Africa.
Lindsey: How about fish? Where do you get fish?
Chef Ken: Local fish. What I do is I ask the fishermen to supply me with fish. Anything. Whatever is fresh! I don’t have a set fish menu for a period of time. Whatever the fisherman catches is what we cook and create recipes according to the fresh fish.
Lindsey: What would you say to our clients that visit NIYAMA that only have the opportunity to dine at Tribal once or twice? Are there certain dishes you recommend?
Chef Ken: Two things. First is the Brahma Potjies which is like a beef stew. Very slow cooked stew. Typical South African dish cooked in a cast iron pot and that is the favorite. That is what I would really recommend. I think people look at the name, Brahma Potjies and they don’t really understand what it is. I tell you whoever has it will have it again. (On the menu this is under The African Cast Iron Potjies section called: Sticky braised African Brahma Bull beef cheek, slow cooked with sweet carrots).
Brahma Beef Potjies
Lindsey: How is it made?
Chef Ken: We use the beef short rib. We slow cook it for about 6 hours. Because it is from the short loin, it has a lot of flavor and is a little gelatinous – not too much, just slightly. We use root vegetables in it, carrots, cassava, yam, these are vegetables that grow in the tropics.
What I do here which is different from the other restaurants is I will never put anything that – I look at the concept we are doing, the tribes we are doing. They all come from tropical areas: the rainforests, Africa. I will not put any European fruits or vegetables in the concept. You never find apples, grapes, strawberries, or potatoes in these dishes. Instead of a potato, I’ll use a sweet potato which grows in the tropics. I’ll use Cassava, Yam, breadfruit, and plantain which I’ll put in the menu and the Potjies as well. It is quite rich but people love it.
Lindsey: And the second dish you recommend?
Chef Ken: The Ceviche is also quite good. The Lobster and Shrimp Ceviche which is also typical Central America.
We do fresh corn tortillas. When you go to most stores or shops you get ready made taco shells/tortillas. Really making a tortilla from scratch the traditional way is something interesting. I really had to research to source the ingredients. We just don’t get the ingredients here. What used to happen in Central American they make it from scratch with corn and boil it with lime and after that they put it through a mill and knead it and then you make your tortilla so that is what we do. I doubt if you find anyone making fresh corn tortillas in the Maldives. Everything is from scratch.
Lobster and Shrimp Ceviche
Lindsey: If you had to describe the concept of your cooking, how would you summarize it?
Chef Ken: We try and make it as homely as possible. Try to stay away from fine dining. Simple and basic. Put in on the plate. Not too fancy dressing up the plate. It’s another way of cooking…I’ve kind of moved away from that trend of fine dining to more of researching what other cultures do and infuse that into my cooking.
Lindsey: Your food tastes great! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.
Our final thoughts:
We ended up dining at Tribal Restaurant 3 of the 5 nights we stayed at NIYAMA! In addition to the dishes Chef Ken recommends (which were awesome) we also loved the Warthog Cutlets, Springbok Potjies, and the fresh fish. Chef’s Ken recommendation of the Beef Potjies is awesome…probably our favorite dish of the ones we tried! During the interview, whenever we started talking about the food that Chef Ken creates, his face would light up and we could feel the passion he has for cooking coming through! It is great to be around someone with so much passion for their profession!