I have always wondered what it took to run the kitchens of popular restaurants. How the plated creation before me came to be. When my cousin decided to become a chef I learned also of the challenges faced by Muslim students to be properly trained chefs and needing to work with and understand non halaal ingredients. This is the beginning of a series of profiles of Chefs in the halaal industry. Meet the people behind the scenes of your favourite halaal restaurant. Find out about their passions, challenges and inspirations and what it takes to be in the restaurant industry.
Hungry for Halaal is soon hosting Talking Taste, the first of hopefully a regular series of unique networking dinner experiences. The first event will be at Sabria’s Restaurant in Wynberg and I thought it fitting to kick off with a profile on the consulting head chef of Sabria’s, Chef Shaheen Kennedy.
I am welcomed by Shaheen as we step into the quiet outside courtyard of Sabria’s Restaurant and I am instantly warmed by his down to earth demeanor and relaxed attitude. His humility and lack of pretension belies his accomplishment of 30 years within the restaurant industry at 5 star restaurants all over Africa including being the Executive Chef at the Radisson Blu Waterfront, Consulting Head Chef for a time at Simon’s Restaurant and Consulting Head Chef for Carne SA. Shaheen did not start out as Shaheen. He is better known as Grant Kennedy in the industry. As a revert to Islam of the past 3 years he faces some challenges when working in the industry as a Consultant Chef but says it’s all about being smart in your cooking.
Where did you start in the business?
I actually started out wanting to be in the management side of the hotel business but after starting my training in the kitchen which is where everyone starts in the hotel business, I realised that’s where my passion lies. I was selected for a 4 year in-house Chef’s training programme with the then Karos Hotel Group and travelled all over Africa with the group. In my fourth year of training I was offered to run the flagship restaurant at the Indaba Hotel in Johannesburg.
Did you cook for famous people?
As a chef in many top hotels I cooked for many big names but the highlight of them all would be having met and cooked for Nelson Mandela several times. Madiba is so down to earth though, that even when you’re pulling out the stops to create the most beautiful dish to put in front of him, all he wanted was Woolworths Pickled Fish and Nando’s Chicken. So Woolworths came out and cooked their recipe from scratch for him and the original founder of Nando’s too cooked the dish especially for him.
You’ve been in the restaurant industry for 30 years. What inspires and draws you to it?
It’s the rush of a busy kitchen, the adrenalin that keeps things at a high energy. They say once a chef, always a chef. Even when you leave the industry you’ll always be drawn back.
What’s different about the industry now compared to when you started?
Because of media and TV shows people are much more exposed to different cuisines and food experiences. There is more demand for fine dining and I find that chefs today are more respected than they were when I started out. Back then you were just the cook in the kitchen.
So let’s get personal…
Why did you revert to Islam?
I was exposed to the halaal requirements of Muslims in many of the hotels in Africa, especially in Kenya. And then when I ran the Culinary Academy, training chefs in Cape Town between 2001 to 2006 I had many Muslim trainees who could not train in a halaal environment but had a commitment to learning the trade and then taking the skills into environments which were more in line with their beliefs. I started to have a better understanding of halaal. When I moved to Cape Town I met my current fiance Faldielah, who is Muslim and who inspired me to learn more about Islam. I was councelled by Sheikh Riyadh Walls who, like me comes from a Scottish background and is himself a revert. It was because of his guidance and mentorship that I decided I wanted to revert to Islam.
What are the challenges you face working in non halaal settings when you’re consulting?
Currently at one of the places I consult, there is one pork dish. I don’t taste it, I don’t touch it. I haven’t eaten pork for 3 years and no, I don’t miss it.
Even in your cooking from a gastronomic point of view?
The only reason you’d use pork or bacon is for the smokiness it brings to a dish. And that smokiness can be re-created with many other ingredients, like smoked chicken or paprika.
To wrap up:
What’s your favourite type of food to cook?
I like easy types of cooking. I enjoy Italian and Indian food the most. But not Durban Indian. It’s the complex flavours and aromas of Pakistani dishes and true Indian food that does it for me. And I love vegetarian food which I learned to appreciate in Kenya from the Indian vegetarian chefs at the hotel kitchen I was running.
Nowadays, when I’m eating out casually with my family I enjoy the flavours and laid back vibe of Spitfire. (Shaheen is not too clued up with the extent of halaal options available to him. I proceed of course to give him a rundown of all that he’s missing.) For something special, I like the ambiance of Pigalle’s. And as a chef, I have much respect for the Test Kitchen.
What’s plans for the future?
I can see myself opening a place of my own. It’s not in the immediate future but when I do it I want to do it proper!