There are three things that spark light in Chef Coco’s eyes: When he talks about his wife, Nassim, and his three daughters, Timorie, Noémie, and Annayah; when he talks about his mother and when he discusses his passion for food.
Chef Coco’s journey into the culinary world started many years ago, at the hands of his Belgian grandfather, a fellow chef. He believes this love of food was genetically transferred to his mother, who in turn infused it into his own DNA. “I am slowly transferring this love to my own daughters,” he shares.
Chef Coco’s family left Burundi for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where his culinary mother opened a restaurant. Wanting a better life for her children, he was sent overseas, and spent his formative years in a Belgium boarding school.
In 1994, as he was completing his degree in Hospitality Management, he received news that his mother had passed away. Within three days he had packed up his life in Belgium, and moved back to the DRC to take over the family business.
There he was, barely in his twenties, the ink on his degree not even dry, trying to fill the gaping hole his mother had left.
As he talks, his eyes soften: “The hardest moment was sitting at her desk. I had always sat on the other side.” He adds: “The start of my career was the death of my mother. It’s an anniversary I have never been able to celebrate.”
He is silent for a moment, looks down at the phone in his hand. Clears his throat, before continuing his story.
His mother gave him the grounding he needed. As a child, he had worked in the restaurant. “My mother had me peeling potatoes, washing the dishes, cleaning the floors.” All the while he observed how she interacted with staff and customers alike. “She was a top service person, but not a soft person.”
He laughs, licks his lips, as if tasting the memory. “One day, a supplier came into the restaurant with fresh water prawns. They were packed in a sealed box and covered with ice. He had mixed rotten ones in, with the fresher ones on top. You couldn’t even smell them, but my mother knew they were there. She said she wouldn’t take them, and he argued with her, thinking that she was just a woman. In an instant, she had reached forward, grabbed him by the collar and punched him so hard in the face that he fell to the ground. He picked himself up and ran away, leaving his box of prawns behind.”
The years following his mother’s death, Chef Coco was heady with success. Business flourished, and he opened a second restaurant, followed by a lounge and night club.
It was during this time that he met his future wife, Nassim.
“It was only later, we discovered that we had been childhood friends. Our parents lived opposite each other back in Burundi, and we had played together as toddlers.” Their lives had taken them on different journeys, before a chance meeting brought them back into each other’s lives. When civil war broke out, forcing the couple to leave the DRC, they moved around – Belgium, Ivory Coast and back to Belgium.
“Then I was offered a six-month consulting contract in South Africa. Something resonated. I returned to Belgium and told my wife and kids, we were moving to South Africa.”
It was challenging to start, as his older two girls were preteens, and couldn’t speak a word of English. But, as throughout, the pillar strength and support of his wife, helped and the family flourished.
Chef Coco opened a small restaurant, the French-inspired Petite Passion in Greenside, Johannesburg, before moving to the Quatermain Hotel as an independent restauranteur, with Sel et Poivre. After 10 years, he made the hard decision to move on.
“This last year has been tough. I believe that tough times is the universe’s way forging you, making you great.”
He took this introspective time to travel, exploring 15 African countries and experiencing traditional foods. This has inspired the creation of his latest restaurant venture, Epicure in Sandton, Johannesburg.
The name is fitting, it’s definition is one who enjoys high quality food and drink. “It’s time to focus on what it means to be an African, how to interpret this and put it into everyday living,” Chef Coco says.
His eyes light up, his speech quickens, as he shares his Pan-African inspired theme. “Johannesburg is the richest city in Africa, but we don’t have a true African fine-dining experience.”
He adds that there is no success story without struggle. “In New York, you have people who live in the street, people who don’t eat all day. But it’s also home to some of the world’s finest and most expensive restaurants. Why can’t we have this here in Africa? Why can’t we have sophistication and pride in our heritage?”
Chef Coco adds that his executive chefs will be Africans with overseas experience. “I am often asked how you can grow as a chef, and my advice is if you can afford it, before you move into the working world, try to live for two years overseas.” This, he adds, not only opens your mind and viewpoint, but builds you as a human being. “You need to be out of your comfort zone, as only then will you grow. Once you do that, remember where you come from.”
He adds that he wants these chefs to come back and teach those in the kitchen who are not as lucky and cannot afford to travel. He wants them to share their inspiration and experiences.
Chef Coco’s aim is for every person sitting in his restaurant, be they local or international, to taste Africa’s memories though his dishes. “When you eat an Ethiopian-inspired dish, you are tasting that place.” He adds: “The way I see it, Africa can only go forward, if Africans are part of it.”