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This chef in Rwanda wants to create a revolution in African cuisine

Chef Dieuveil Malonga runs the show at Meza Malonga.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Chef Dieuveil Malonga runs the show at Meza Malonga.

KIGALI, Rwanda — Chef Dieuveil Malonga gives off something of a Willy Wonka vibe. His infectious smile feels impish, mischievous.

At his restaurant Meza Malonga in Kigali, Rwanda, there's no chocolate river, but there is an entire wall full of seeds, spices and fermented fruits in wide-mouthed glass jars. Malonga calls this his laboratory. It bursts with elements ripe for experimentation. Baobab from Tanzania. Black lemon from Egypt. "The base of the cuisine," Malonga calls it.

He reaches for one jar and pops off the lid. It's full of a spice called pebe. A spice which, when fermented, has the aroma of onions and garlic sizzling on a stove.

Each jar is like this. A sense memory. Vibrant and specific.

He takes a jar full of peppercorns off the shelf. They're from Cameroon, and he thinks these peppercorns are the best on the continent. "Just the parfume – it's not too aggressive," he says. "A little fruity, a little smoky." The restaurant incorporates these peppercorns into desserts, playing the smokiness off of pineapple, mangoes or passion fruit.

Meza Malonga specializes in Afro fusion cuisine.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Meza Malonga specializes in Afro fusion cuisine.

Malonga was born in Congo-Brazzaville, where his grandmother, who raised him from the age of three, owned a restaurant. He says his love for food and cooking started there. He spent his teenage years in Germany and he started his career working in top European restaurants.

In 2015, he competed in the French Top Chef TV show — he says he was the first Black chef to do so. When it came time to open his own restaurant, he took a two-year tour of the African continent, seeking inspiration.

He opened Meza Malonga in 2020 at the height of pandemic dining restrictions. Restrictions that he says allowed the staff to innovate and refine the mission of the restaurant.

"We have a dual mission," he says. "Our first mission is to promote the amazing ingredients and cuisines within Africa." The other, he says, is transmission: "That's why we focus more on teaching and training."

Standing in his laboratory, it's full of what feels like collective work. There's nobody yelling, "Yes chef!" and Malonga pointedly refers to "our restaurant ... our menu ... our project." His longest employee is Frank Buhigiro, who says "the way we work is like we are like family. You know, we don't have pressure because we get time to think and create."

It's a team effort at Meza Malonga.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
It's a team effort at Meza Malonga.

The restaurant is only open for eight months out of the year. For the other four months, Malonga and his team travel the continent. Their goal is to experience different African cuisines first-hand, and source unique ingredients. But it's more driven, more intense, than just sourcing. Malonga has visited 48 African countries, eating his way across the continent.

"That's why we travel," Malonga says. "Because there's some knowledge you can just get, like ... can read a book but will not understand very well." Traveling and eating locally becomes an antidote to globalization. He cites Congo, where "you cannot eat a mango if it's not mango season."

Upon returning to Kigali, he brings back new flavors as souvenirs. He describes new tastes like a shiny new toy. "Right now I'm eating cassava leaves — I love it!" But that can change as he discovers a new flavor. He feels like a man on a quest to taste and document what he calls "the huge diversity we have in the continent." Malonga says he weighs not just what ingredients to use, but which country he should "put on the map."

Malonga wants to carve out a space for African food in the global fine dining scene. Something he thinks is increasingly possible based on how people travel. Now, he says, people book trips not based on where they sleep, but where they eat.

Meza Malonga's main mission is to promote the ingredients and cuisines within Africa.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Meza Malonga's main mission is to promote the ingredients and cuisines within Africa.

"People now are open minded traveling from Copenhagen to Brazil, from London to Nigeria, only for food," he says, adding that "this is time for us, as Africans, to promote the amazing cuisine and our heritage."

Still, there is not a single Michelin starred restaurant on the African continent — Michelin does not cover Africa. Those types of accolades aren't what motivate him. What's important, he says, is creating a sustainable ecosystem: "I want the business to work well so that I can pay my people, I can pay my farmer. So I cook that to create an ecosystem."

If recognition follows, that's a locally-sourced, seasonal cherry on top. "If a Michelin star comes, wow it's good," he says.

The team at Meza Malonga spend months each year travelling around Africa and finding new flavors and foods.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
The team at Meza Malonga spend months each year travelling around Africa and finding new flavors and foods.

An hour before dinner service, Meza Malonga is a hive of activity. All of the restaurant staffers are dressed in black T-shirts and blue aprons. Their movements are precise, using tweezers to garnish food on small, round plates.

Dinners at Meza Malonga have no menu — the meal changes based on seasonally available ingredients and what's exciting Malonga at the moment. The multi-course dinner is served in a laboratory/dining room. Giant windows open onto the hills of Kigali. The chefs present each course: Cauliflower with a bright peanut sauce. Tree tomato sorbet cooled by liquid nitrogen.

"This one is beef filet," one of the kitchen staff tells us. "On top we have cream of garlic and spices from Nigeria." Spices that we can see filling the jars on the wall in front of us. Spices that will be replenished on Malonga's next trip around the continent.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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