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Meet ex-KDF chef serving up African flavours in Dubai

By Brian George | Dec 18th 2021 | 4 min read
By Brian George | December 18th 2021

Cyprian Juma quit the Air Force to fully express himself as a civilian chef in some of the world’s best hospitality hotspots. [Courtesy]

The aroma of familiar dishes wafting from a restaurant along the streets of Dubai stopped a colleague and I in our tracks.

Excited at the prospect of savouring a taste of home, we decided to explore.  

“Karibuni sana. What will you have?” said a tall gentleman in a chef’s attire as he approached our table.  

“How did you know we are Kenyans?” I asked excitedly.

“I know one when I see one. The vibe is just different,” replied Cyprian Juma, who is the head chef at Dubai-based Alkebulan, a restaurant that specialises in African cuisine.

“Normally I don’t take orders, but when I saw you, I had to come over.”

I am now curious and I request for an interview after our meal.

We were in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the Expo 2020 Dubai, an annual six-month event that aims at providing an opportunity for countries to showcase their export capacity.  

Almost 40 minutes later, Juma emerges from the kitchen and we finally settle down the interview.

Juma’s passion for cooking started when he was a teenager in Kanyawanga High School, Migori County.

“I remember developing jam paste that made it to the national level in the science congress.

Probably that is where I started developing the passion,” he recalled.

An aerial view of Dubai from Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, in Dubai November 19, 2014. [Reuters]

After high school, Juma joined the Kenya Air Force, where he honed his culinary skills as a military chef after undergoing further training at Kahawa Barracks School of Ordinance.

“After working in the military, I went to the Kenya Utalii College for culinary studies, so I could connect my military culinary skills and civilian practices,” he said.

After completing the mandatory nine years of service, Juma left the military to join the hospitality industry.

But why did he leave at the height of his military career?

Juma said he felt restricted and could not fully exploit his skills as a chef because of other military duties.  

“I felt I had more to offer out here,” he said.

His quest for a job would lead him to Dubai where he landed a position as a junior chef with the Starwood Group of Hotels.

This is after turning down a job offer at the Serena Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, to which he had been recommended by a former lecturer at Utalii College.   After seven months as a junior chef at the Starwood Hotel in Dubai, Juma got another job in the US with the Royal Caribbean Restaurant in Miami, Florida.

“It was a nine-month contract,” he said.

For the better part of his contract, Juma was deployed on a cruise ship, which he admitted was not easy as it involved moving from one place to another, leaving his young family behind.

It is for this reason that he turned down an offer for a contract renewal, returning to Dubai on a visitor’s visa in 2015.

Two weeks after landing there, he secured a job with the Jumeirah Group of Hotels on a one year contract.

It was around this time that Etihad Airways, the national carrier for UAE, advertised positions for experienced chefs.

“I applied casually and was shortlisted alongside 84 others.

“I was lucky to be among the five successful candidates and the only African selected for the job. This was in March 2015,” recalled Juma.

Chef Cyprian Juma. [Courtesy]

As a manager for the airline’s first-class section, Juma was in charge of overseeing the preparation of meals for important passengers. 

“It meant my team and I had to do background checks and know what they liked and make it just as they wanted it,” said Juma, 37.

Because of his military background, he also doubled up as an inflight safety officer. But being one not to settle, Juma was on the move again. He joined the TV show Master Chef that was then making inroads in the UAE at the time.

This allowed him to work with celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Anita Harris, whom he helped execute their menus and assisted in the opening of the Dubai Marina Restaurant.

After six months on the show, another opportunity came knocking.

“I got a job at a French restaurant that had just opened in the high-end area of Dubai called DIFC,” said Juma.

“Together with the head chef, we won numerous awards for our exemplary work, but after a year, I left for the Alkebulan African Restaurant.”

Juma said he was headhunted from his profile on LinkedIn.

At Alkebulan, he works alongside other Kenyan, Senegalese and Burundian chefs.

As the chief chef, he is responsible for overseeing the hotel’s menu in its nine outlets in the UAE. The menu, Juma said, encompasses cuisines of different African countries.

From Kenya, for instance, he sources goat meat and French beans.  His favourite meal is chika nyama, an African meat grill served with ugali or mashed potatoes.

It is one of the most popular meals on their menu.

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