Picture this: 11 guys sitting around a gas lantern outside a camp tent on Kili. James is from Chicago, and he answers to “Chef!” The other 10 guys are dressed in chef reds. These Red Chefs are the Tanzanians. And together, they’re producing some of the finest food you could ever imagine coming off the side of this mountain. Moroccan-spiced sautéed tilapia. Day before, it was the buttermilk fried chicken; beats the hell out of KFC. Next day, it would be French lentil salad.
The 10 guys in red are my Tusker mountain chefs. The Chicagoan, Chef James Hanyzski, is a Certified Master Chef, one of only 65 in America. Normally, Chef James teaches culinary arts at the CIA – that would be the other CIA, the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, the Harvard of cooking schools. But on this occasion, he was taking my guys to school, so to speak. He was actually bringing the school to them.
For ten days on the Kili climb, and three days prior, in an intense culinary boot camp, what Chef James brought, along with his knives, was a lifetime of skill and knowledge as his part of a deal Tusker had just made with the Institute. The idea, after a brainstorm from Amy – my wife and fellow mountain guide – was to elevate what was already Tusker’s hearty, ample mountain grub. Take it to new … heights.
We’re now 3 years into our 5 year partnership with CIA who sends their highly-skilled chefs on our climbs, turning our Tusker staff into true world class culinary artists. The grub is so good, I can’t tell what I look forward to more: a day on the mountain, or mealtime at camp with the high altitude victuals.
I can say it now but as Chef James was flying out to meet us that first year, I started having doubts about the whole proposition. In true adventure travel – which has been my stock in trade for almost 40 years – doing something like this was a bit far off the “beaten” path. Would there be chemistry between my guys and Chef James? Would there be some wild mismatch between their abilities and the haute cuisine training he was going to bring? Would they be able to replicate, on a daily basis, the highly-refined skills they were about to learn? Not to mention the language divide.
The gamble paid off beyond our wildest dreams. Chef James and my team became instant kitchen comrades, as they learned and retained all the incredible skills he imparted. Of the thousands of culinarians he has taught in his day, he said he’d never seen anyone produce at the same level he had taught them, and with such consistency. And we were at altitude on a mountain!
The syllabus was ambitious and demanding but not fussy. First was food safety: cleanliness of implements, cooking surfaces, and zero cross-contamination. Second was knife skills. Nothing went to waste. Everything not put into one dish, would find its way into another. Then came the actual science of the kitchen, in which every sauce finds an identity, meats are always tender, and flavors blend sumptuously yet are never overbearing. My favorite was a toss-up between that buttermilk fried chicken and the fajitas. But that all depends on what day you’d have asked me.
The only drawback to Chef James’s CIA style of menu planning is that everything only gets served once – brutally, no repeats. And I say brutally, because when I find something I like, I want to eat it every day. Thirteen days, ten chefs, twenty dishes (with starters and desserts, and that’s not even counting breakfast!)
Watching Chef James and my guys work even raised my game in my own kitchen. Next year, I’ll have to teach him ugali mchicha stew.