Chefs love the anonymity of the kitchen, the hallowed sanctuary where only a few ever get to enter. Behind closed doors, utensils are banged, orders barked and temperatures rise.
These kitchens are no places for the faint-hearted. For top chefs, however, their work is their eternal signature. The food extols their virtues, more than any words could ever say to thousands of diners who flock to the millions of eateries around the world.
But on Friday, March 11, 2022, more than 100 local chefs were out in the open at Windsor Golf Club. In their white uniforms, they came to pay tributes to one of their own, Chef Eamon Mullan, who died on February 21 and was cremated two days later in Nanyuki.
He is survived by his wife, Lesley, and daughters, Georgia and Ciera.
Born with little privilege in Ireland 70 years ago, Mullan moved to Kenya in 1975 for “a short contract” that lasted 47 years. His well-known stint is when he served as the executive head chef at the Norfolk Hotel.
The hotel’s Ibis Grill would become a theatre of sorts where Mullan crafted meals with an artistic touch. Here, he interacted with foreign celebrities including actors James Earl Jones, the burly Hollywood actor with a voice to boot and Denzel Washington.
Then there was Robert Redford, who, together with Meryl Streep, came calling as the key actors in the famous 1985 movie Out of Africa. Others were Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and LeVar Burton of Star Trek.
But perhaps the most famous of the guests was Queen Elizabeth and her husband Philip, who visited the country in 1982 and had Chef Mullan bake their favourite cake.
In the memorial, speakers paid glowing tribute to a man who found a ‘ragtag’ army of elderly chefs that had a poor succession plan and would go ahead to recruit young chefs, many of who went on to handle some of the largest kitchens in the world.
Timothy Kairu met Mullan in 1991. “He trained me in his kitchen for six years,” Kairu says. “I did eight or nine foreign trips in culinary competitions, thanks to Chef Mullan’s faith in my abilities.”
Kairu was looking forward to a long career with Mullan when the master chef did the ‘unthinkable’. “He called me one day and told me ‘Timothy, I want you to resign.’ I was speechless. I had no clue as to what I had done to deserve the boot,” adds Kairu.
Chef Mullan meant it. In fact, when Kairu said he had never resigned before and so had no idea on how to draft such a letter, Mullan helped him design it. The management was dumbfounded when they received Kairu’s letter, but what they did not know was that the head chef was the real architect of Kairu’s culinary destiny.
“When I returned to Chef Mullan’s office, he opened his drawer and gave me an offer letter for a job in a top hotel in Dubai. I went on to become the executive chef at one of Accor Hotels for a good part of my 15 years in Dubai.”
Then there is Simon Wanjau, the former executive chef at Nairobi’s Intercontinental Hotel. Wanjau comes from a family of chefs but his parents did not want him to become one. He describes himself as “a problem child” who went to five high schools in four years.
It looked like the world could not contain him, well, that was before he met Mullan at The Norfolk. “He was quick to spot talent,” says Wanjau.
“He even negotiated my salary and benefits at the hotel.” Wanjau went on to prepare savoury meals for former US president Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and actor Angelina Jolie among high-profile global personalities. Wanjau says Mullan feared nobody and recalled a time when the chef took on the UK embassy in Nairobi after the latter denied Wanjau a travel visa. “He was tough but always had your back.”
Oscar Mulavu met Mullan 18 years ago and hoped to impress the chef with his knowledge of how things work in the kitchen. “I was thick and naive but had a desire to make it in the culinary world,” he recalls.
“I thought I was an internationally-renowned chef but Mullan did not care. He told me to drop my college stuff and open my mind to endless possibilities in the culinary world.”
Like others who passed through Mullan’s hands, he owes his prowess to the selfless efforts of Mullan.
But even in greatness, Mullan reserved the best for his family, spending quality time with his wife and two daughters away from clanking pots and pans.
“It was meant to be a short contract but he ended up living here for 47 years. He just fell in love with the country and the people,” says Lesley. “Ours was shared love that cannot be replicated, where we finished each other’s sentences.”
In her words, how different would Kenya be without him? Perhaps a bleak nation with poor culinary culture. She will miss the man she shared cottage pies with and who savoured her bone steak and tickled her with his Irish sense of humour.
As Mullan’s memorial came to an end, one of his favourite songs, Angels by Robbie Wiliams, was played: Does an angel contemplate my fate? And do they know the places where we go? When we are grey and old. So when I am lying in my bed, thoughts running through my head, and I feel the love is dead, I am loving angels instead.
And the assembled chefs stood up one more time and shouted the kitchen’s refrain: “Yes Chef!