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

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Chef Dieuveil Malonga wants to create a revolution in African cuisine. At his restaurant, Meza Malonga, he's combining local ingredients with fine dining techniques honed in Europe. All Things Considered co-host Juana Summers stopped by his restaurant during a recent reporting trip in Kigali.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Chef Dieuveil Malonga describes his restaurant as his laboratory. And if this restaurant is a culinary laboratory, this floor-to-ceiling shelf is bursting with ingredients for experimentation. There are rows full of wide-mouthed glass jars full of seeds, spices and fermented fruits. Malonga reaches for one jar and pops off the lid. This one is full of a spice called pebe (ph).

DIEUVEIL MALONGA: So this is one very complex spices, and you find it more in sale in a country like Mali, Niger, and it tastes more garlic. Like, you can just smell.

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh, it smells so good. It's very close to almost like a fried garlic that you might smell.

MALONGA: It's close to a garlic and fried onions. After fermentation, then it gives you all this amazing parfum.

SUMMERS: Malonga was born in Congo-Brazzaville but spent his teenage years in Germany. He started his career working in top European restaurants, but then he took a two-year tour of the African continent, seeking inspiration for his own. He opened Meza Malonga in 2020. He takes a jar full of peppercorns off the shelf. They're from Cameroon, and he says he thinks these peppercorns are the best on the continent. I want to know why.

MALONGA: Just the parfum - it is not much aggressive. I love the parfum. It's a little fruit, little smoky, you know?

SUMMERS: And you can really get the smokiness as soon as you smell it.

MALONGA: Yeah. I mean, I use it more in pastry.

SUMMERS: Pastries?

MALONGA: Yeah, we do sorbet. And also when we do, like, a pineapple confit or when we do, like, a mango or - just that much more with passion fruit. Yeah.

SUMMERS: When you're cooking, do you prefer to make recipes that are sweet or recipes that are more savory?

MALONGA: The good thing, like, for me, Africa is the garden of the world. This is my version. So and in Rwanda we have a very diverse ecosystem. You can farm everything.

SUMMERS: So you get to play with every kind of flavor, every kind of texture, it sounds like.

The key to being able to play with such a wide array of flavors and ingredients is exposure. He tells me that the restaurant is only open for eight months out of the year. For the other four months, he and his team travel to experience different cuisines firsthand and source unique ingredients. He has visited 48 African countries.

MALONGA: Most of them, like - after thinking about ingredients we use and we try, OK, which country must put on a map because we have a different spices from different countries. And so, OK, we focus more, like, on West African cuisine. And we have some recipes, like old recipe from grandmother. We try to do the original how the grandmothers do that in the village, and after we try to bring our modernity side and using all this new technology.

SUMMERS: He brings new technology to old recipes. And this idea of the grandmother's cuisine is one that Malonga brings up repeatedly as we talk. His own grandmother owned a restaurant, and he says his love for food and cooking started there. For Malonga, it's about sharing history and culture from generation to generation, through the kinds of recipes that just can't be found in a book. The restaurant is a beehive of activity. It is less than an hour before dinner service. The windows are wide open, and you can hear the sounds of Kigali below. Sous chef Frank Wehijiro (ph) guides us through the prep area.

FRANK WEHIJIRO: Like, here - when we start here will be gazpacho over tomatoes and pineapple.

SUMMERS: That's absolutely beautiful. The colors in the dish are so marvelous and bright against the tan of the dish.

WEHIJIRO: Thank you. Thank you. As you can see, they are doing the gazpacho over tomatoes. This one is like a splash of tomatoes with some pineapple to give some richer acidic. And they are doing a rosette with lemon and edible flowers.

SUMMERS: Oh, that looks delicious. It's, like, this tan crisp with this beautiful bright green detailed sauce on it.

Malonga wants to carve out a space for African food in the global fine dining scene. 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 Malonga.

MALONGA: Me, I have another philosophy that for me don't play a big role. The very important for me is, like, my community. I want that the business work well, that I can pay my people. I can pay my farmer. So I cook that to create an ecosystem. And our really ambitions now is, like, to promote what we have and to do business, because at the end of the day, it's business. And I think if we are happy, the guests will feel it already. That is very important. If it's time shall come (ph), wow, it's good.

SUMMERS: When our team sets down for dinner, plate after plate comes out in quick succession. The chefs present each course.

UNIDENTIFIED CHEF: So this one is a beef fillet. On top, we have cream of garlic and the suya spices from Nigeria. We have butternut. Also, we have a sweet potato puree and vanilla sauce. Enjoy.

SUMMERS: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHEF: All right.

SUMMERS: I mean, it's hard to describe how beautiful this course is. It's on this slate, almost white warm plate. There's a small fillet. There's a vanilla sauce. The colors are bright green. There's radish, the vivid orange. There's a sauce drizzled all over it. It's perfectly composed at the center of the plate. It looks incredible. Can't wait to try it.

Diners at Meza Malonga have no menu. The meal changes based on seasonally available ingredients. There's cauliflower with a bright peanut sauce, tree tomato sorbet cooled by liquid nitrogen, a moist honey cake for one of two dessert courses. Chef Malonga stops by our table at the end of the meal.

Thank you so much for everything. This has been a very memorable experience, and I love getting to see the kind of the map of Africa spread out across your courses.

MALONGA: That's amazing. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: That was All Things Considered co-host Juana Summers reporting from Rwanda. To hear more stories from her recent trip, use the NPR app or visit npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.