Zimbabwe is a country of great contrasts: extreme wealth and desperate poverty, beauty and disgrace, unwavering pride and deep shame, unabashed joy and unbearable suffering. Zimbabwe is a country like no other. Under a tyrant's rule for over 30 years, the people have learned how to survive and even flourish in the face of unyielding circumstances, waning hope and oppression.
Zimbabwe holds a special place in my heart. In 2004 on my first trip to Africa, a quick plane ride from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls revealed the true Africa that eluded me in the south. I had been invited to Cape Town and the astonishingly beautiful wine lands which flank the stunning, cosmopolitan city for a week of wine, food and fun. The intention was to experience the local wines, wine makers and the long history of wine making on the southern most point of the world's most intriguing continent.
The trip was amazing and fruitful in many ways, but after a week of wine, food and living the good life I was convinced that there was more to Africa than beautiful seaside estates, four-course dinners and sunset regattas complete with wine tastings and canapés.
I made a quick call to my brother Eric -- who was keeping the NYC kitchens of Blue Ribbon Restaurants humming along -- to say that I needed more time on the Dark Continent. He obliged, and my plans quickly took form. Kerry-Ann, the Wines of South Africa representative who was responsible for the unruly group of Americans that I was a part of, made some calls to her family's safari lodge, Bayethe, on the Shamwari reserve on the Eastern Cape, some plane reservations and -- plenty of phone calls later -- I was quickly on route to the best journey of my life. That trip over seven years ago showed me a side of Africa that was intoxicating and captured my heart. It was wild and unpredictable and my adventure back in 2004 still burns deep in my mind nearly every day of my life.
Fast forward to 2011. I have been back to Africa every year since 2004. Kerry-Ann, who was once responsible for that unruly group of Americans, is now responsible for unruly me and our daughter Tanner. We were married just weeks after I returned from my Africa walkabout and I am ironically working with our brother-in-law Mark and Kerry's sister Amanda to open a luxury safari lodge on the banks of the Zambezi just four kilometers north of Victoria Falls.
I just returned from two weeks at the site. The location is stunning, with white-sand beaches on the banks of the world's most powerful river where elephants, hippos and crocs bask in their natural habitat. Wondrous baobab trees straight out of the illustrations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince provide a serenity so complete that one instantly forgets all else and becomes a part of the Earth's hypnotic rhythms which seem to be pumping up from the very spot where the lodge is taking shape.
Mark has already spent two years obtaining the land concession and six months getting the construction project going and dealing with a litany of issues. The challenge to design, build and create a world-class kitchen and restaurant in Zimbabwe is not without many pitfalls and challenges. I quickly learned that Zimbabwe is extremely third world and that the basics that we are all so accustomed to and take for granted in America are nearly impossible to procure and achieve. Quality food, hygienic kitchens and even a culinary culture are hard to find.
What I thought would be a rich history of special dishes passed down from generation to generation were not to be found. My inquiries into holiday recipes and family favorites fell on deaf ears. I quickly realized that the questions that I usually ask when I travel that lead to great revelations and the heart and soul of a particular people evoke unease and blank stares here in Zimbabwe. These proud and resilient people, just like the land that they have relied on for millennia, have been stripped and robbed of tradition and cultural wealth, by war, imperialism, greed and tyranny.
My time at the site was amazing. For days we worked in the intense heat,with temperatures consistently above 100 degrees. The team of 40 local workers raised the lodge's 35 foot timber beams, bound and laid thatch roofs, ran power lines and constructed water catchment systems. All the while I began in earnest to try to find what I knew existed but could not find.
In the Chinotimba, a township just miles from Victoria Falls, where thousands live in dilapidated huts made from salvaged materials, I began to sense that I had found the heart and soul of Zimbabwe. Here, a type of spinach is grown out of the hard dirt ground. In front of nearly every house there is a small patch of the green plant, sometimes just a few square feet growing and providing the family with their daily nutrition and sustenance. "Mile meal," "Pap" or "Sadza" is the nation's food. It is the same as our grits and is boiled with water until it's soft. The Zimbabweans cook the Sadza till it is rather dry since they don't use utensils to eat but rather their hands so the final product must be of a consistency that they can form it into a ball and dip it in slow cooked greens if available.
Word around the lodge site had spread that I was a chef and had been asking about traditional dishes and food. One afternoon, while laying out the future Blue Ribbon kitchen, a tall and lean teenage boy dressed in baggy blue overalls and a New York Yankee baseball cap named Gift approached me and shyly stated that another worker, "Big Boy," knew how to make some traditional Zimbabwean food, "food that the ancestors used to eat." Big Boy was high on the lodge's roof laying the endless sea of gold reeds which would eventually make up the lodge's majestic thatched roof. I called to him and he descended the make-shift ladder. We discussed a dish called Shlogo. It sound a bit scary but intriguing: Cow's head was the base, but beyond that I wasn't sure on the details. The price for the head was $15, and Big Boy and Gift would get the head after work and prepare the dish the next day. The money exchanged hands, and I was anxiously looking forward to my first true Zimbabwean meal.
Well, things didn't go exactly as I expected. (Needless to say, this was one of the more challenging food events of my life.) But what I did learn was that there remains in Zimbabwe a passion for tradition and food. The whole construction team cut the day short and headed to the fire pit for a special meal. While I struggled with the Shlogo, the crew dived straight in. The contents of the two pots were quickly devoured and smiles and stories of better times filled the air with optimism, pride and hope.
Gift was ecstatic, Big Boy dished out plate after plate and a calm came over everybody. The guys were anxious to see if I enjoyed their beloved dished: I did. They started to tell me more, different dishes and various preparations that we could try in the days to come. This was what I knew existed but couldn't find. The joy that can only come from this type of culinary exchange was intoxicating. I promised that I would return after Christmas and we would all cook together -- and maybe I could learn more from them and even make a few dishes for them from America. I knew this to be the moment of a great culinary connection that opened the door for a spiritual meeting between two very different cultures.
I am anxiously awaiting my return to the lodge in a couple of weeks to see the progress that has been made and do some real cooking in our new kitchen with the team.