The Standard Group Plc is a multi-media organization with investments in media platforms spanning newspaper print operations, television, radio broadcasting, digital and online services. The Standard Group is recognized as a leading multi-media house in Kenya with a key influence in matters of national and international interest.
  • Standard Group Plc HQ Office,
  • The Standard Group Center,Mombasa Road.
  • P.O Box 30080-00100,Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Telephone number: 0203222111, 0719012111
  • Email: [email protected]

'Why I chose to sweat it out at work'

Rita Njeru
 Rita Njeru, Sous chef Photo:Courtesy

For a long time, the commercial kitchen remained the preserve of men. Despite women traditionally being the primary nurturers, in charge of health and well-being at the household level, many shied away from such even for the money.

However, Rita Tria Njeru, a 27-year-old Sous-chef (the second in command in a kitchen),  is among the women changing this trend. She has positioned herself as a leading chef and set herself apart from her male counterparts. She stands as the only woman among 16 chefs working in the “hot kitchen” of a family seafood restaurant.

But this is not a trend that is unique to Rita’s workplace. Globally, only 19 per cent of chefs are women and they generally earn Sh18m less than their male counterparts annually, according to the Women’s Bureau of the US Department of Labour. And more specificially to Rita’s situation, few women do what she does at work.

“Where I work, I am the only female in the hot kitchen, and I was the only female griller before I was promoted to Sous Chef. A hot kitchen is where the hot food, which moves the fastest, is prepared. Fire is a very important element in the hot kitchen,” she explains.

“When you enter the hot kitchen the first thing you notice is the heat; it is also very busy – there are pot and pans around you, with people placing orders, all very exciting. There is also the sound of sizzling all around you. The air here is very different,” she says, describing her workplace.

“Women in the hot kitchen are few and far between - it is mostly a male dominated section of the kitchen. Typically, women thrive at the pastry and the salad sections,” she explains.

But why do women keep off the hot kitchen. Is it because it is demanding? Is it stressful? Is it the long hours, I prod.

“We have been cooking all our lives, and nurturing families, but when it comes to a professional kitchen set-up, somehow this changes. The hot kitchen is demanding; You have to be very fast as most foods that move out of the kitchen come from here. As a woman, you cannot afford to be the weakest link. In fact, you have to be one of the strongest links! You need to hold your own. Women shy away from this demanding environment yet have the ability to work in it,” she says.

What it’s really like?

“I get to work very early, usually by 7am if I am working the morning shift. I dress up and look at the timetable to know who I have on the current shift, and who will join in the later shift. The kitchen is cleaned the night before but you have to clean it again before you start preparing your food. Hygiene and quality are top concerns. After that, I requisition for what will be needed, and issue each department with what they need from the stores and cold rooms. When everybody has what they require, we start ‘mis en place’, when we do the initial preparation of food before production. After this, I usually have a tea break and when I return, we prepare meals for our first guests,” Rita says.

In the beginning

So what drove Rita to seek a career that most women would rather not pursue? “By the time I was eight, I could cook a couple of meals comfortably and I enjoyed the cooking process,” she says. It was at this point that her love for cooking began.

“My grandma Beatrice was a home science teacher and I could watch her cook all the time since she hosted people a lot. With time, I started to help out. I come from a family that loves to host and really feed people. I found that so exciting and by the time I was joining high school I knew I wanted to cook for a living,” Rita says.

 “I used to look up to my uncle John,a  chef a lot. He would come home and take over the kitchen and make all these delicious meals. I wanted to do that. Right now he owns successful restaurants in Scotland and that inspires me every day. My most memorable experience in the kitchen was when I learnt how to make my grandma’s famous banana fritters and my uncle’s delicious sticky toffee cake. And when I cut my finger nail badly when trying to chop like a pro,” she remembers.

After high school, Rita joined Kenya Polytechnic where she enrolled for a course in catering and accommodation management. “The course was a humble beginning, since the school was not too exotic. We were taught the whole gamut from housekeeping to cooking and everything in between,” she responds to my question of why she could not major on her cooking passion. “I had made up my mind to concentrate on cooking once I completed the course, and the course gave me the much needed papers that employers look for.”

Though good at what she did, it quickly dawned on her that employment opportunities were not easy to come by. Going back to seek an internship position at Serena Hotel - where she had done her internship - proved futile. “They said they had no open positions for anyone, not even non-paid internship.”

She tried her luck at Crowne plaza. “They would only take me if I agreed to come in as a graduate trainee and stay on probation for a couple of months. “ Believing in herself, she took up the job knowing she could prove her worth and work her way up.

True to her words, she was taken in as a casual just over a fortnight into the training. “I had to be more aggressive on learning new things, trying things that would usually make me uncomfortable, paying strict attention to detail and being fast,” she narrates.

Here too, I was the only woman in the hot kitchen and the only casual - all the others were male and permanent employees,” she recalls of the excitement for open fires, grills and ovens. The thrill was however short lived as soon after she was moved to the pastries section.

 “I was good at pastries and there was a need there, so I had to fill in the gap as a pastry chef. I loved to cook chapati when growing up though they turned out either hard or totally out of shape. Either way i enjoyed it. I had this fear that I may never be as good as those I found (they knew so much) and that I may not be respected as a female chef but I’m so grateful and blessed to be where I am today. My family has been so supportive and prayerful. I am reaching for the stars a step at a time,” she says.

When an opportunity to start and manage a small cafe in Syokimau came up, she took it. Not long after that, she sought a new challenge and applied for a job at Ocean Basket, her current employer, that landed her yet again in the hot kitchen where she started as a grill cook.

Rita working the grills
 Rita working the grills Photo:Courtesy


Fun as it may be, being the only lady among men comes with its own challenges. “Interacting with men takes a lot of patience. You need to understand their language and sometimes speak it,” a skill she had to learn so she is not left out.

“Besides that you need to know more in terms of the menu, food and emerging trends and be twice as good so you are not the weakest link in the group,” she says. Rita keeps at the top of the pack by studying twice as hard, watching a whole lot of cooking shows, learning from her colleagues and collecting cookbooks and trying out the recipes. It is therefore no wonder that her friends like having her around for she will be up to try a new recipe for them.

All this learning has rubbed of on her cooking at home. “I find myself grilling a lot in the house as it is a technique I have become comfortable and proficient in it. Just as in the restaurant, I use the freshest ingredients possible. I fry better because now I am more aware that frying is not about throwing things in hot oil; there is a way you fry,” she explains how her mind has been opened up to many cooking techniques and to consciously bring out the texture, flavour and nutritional value of foods.

Passionate about seafood, she is an ambassador of the same, converting many of her friends to become fans and even teaching them how to make it. She even has a few tips to share with women.

“If the fish smells fishy, think twice,” advises Rita on buying fish. Noting my confusion, she goes further to explain; “Fresh fish should smell like the water it comes from. If it smells fishy, it is not fresh.” She further outlines that it is for this reason that fish farmers mimic as much as possible the environment from which the specific breed comes from, if they are to harvest great tasting fish.

Among other things one should look out for when buying whole fish is the eyes, the flesh and the most obviously colour. “The eyes should to be alive - not sunken or dead. The flesh should be firm, bouncing back if poked. Whole fish has a shine that reflects the light that falls on it while filleted fish should be white unless it is tuna which is red or salmon which is originally pink-orange, but there should be consistency in the colour,” she says.

Related Topics


Similar Articles


Recommended Articles