How One ‘Cookist’ is Inspiring Nairobi’s Food Scene

One of the first things many people ask when they run into Mulunda Kombo is, “So, when are you making me a burger?”

Mulunda, a self described ‘cookist’, is an up and coming chef in the Nairobi food scene whose drool inducing Instagram feed has inspired marriage proposals, a photo collaboration with a local gallery, and a comment section begging to be fed with each new post. Best known for his burgers and meats, the self taught chef shies away from any notion that he is a professional.

“I kinda stumbled upon my talent for cooking and didn’t really see myself forming a career out of it. But my sisters, and now my friends, have really been pushing me to not let it go to waste.”

When asked what sparked his interest in the culinary arts, he returns to his childhood. With busy parents who often traveled for work and an older brother who helped manage a chain of hotels, Mulunda spent many a school holiday with his older brother. Staying at hotels across the Kenyan countryside, from the Aberdares to the Maasai Mara, he was equal parts curious and bored. Which meant, he often found himself in the hotel kitchens. There, he watched as chefs sliced, diced and put together gourmet-worthy meals.

“They would make me these crazy meals and I’d taste them. I probably didn’t appreciate them as much as I would have now, but I loved watching them cook.”

This, would turn out to be the training ground for his future as a ‘cookist.’ A food lover first, with a lot of reading, research and trial and error over the years, Mulunda has gone on to refine his cooking. Transforming his hobby into something to crave for. Like any good cook, Mulunda’s approach to cooking is simple, easy to follow, but with something just outside your reach that gives it that extra flair.  Take for instance his Too Much Sauce burger inspired by his days in Johannesburg, when he and his friends would douse preggo sandwiches from the school canteen in whatever sauces they could get their hands on. Learning along the way, that “It’s all in the sauce.”

When asked what makes a good meal, there are four things that stick out for him:

  1. It has to be relatively easy to prepare. “You shouldn’t have to struggle for hours for a good meal. The simpler the better.”
  2. It has to smell good while being prepared, “because that prepares your palate and stomach.”
  3. “It has to be presented well,” and lastly,
  4. It has to leave you wanting more, “even if you’re stuffed. You need to get the sweats when you’re eating.”

That third point, presentation, is what Mulunda owes to a lot of his online success. Yes, grapefruit infused king prawns sound delicious (as do short ribs and risotto bianco, for that matter) but how the food looks is equally as important. “Particularly with social media,” he states, “you’re feeding someone’s eye because they can’t smell, they can’t taste, so presentation is key.”

Using social media, Mulunda is pushing his ideas of what good food looks like onto a Kenyan food scene that he feels remains “unexplored.” With a steadily growing list of online followers, vendors dying to get their products featured in his meals, and no shortage of venues interested in having his culinary talent for a night (or day), his bet is paying off. The cookist is now considering a broad array of avenues to take his talent to the next level—and bring more experimentation to the local food scene. He’s already creating intimate dining experiences for acquaintances and friends, working on an idea for a pop-up restaurant at interesting venues across Nairobi, and working on featuring his goods at major local festivals.

While getting a taste of Mulunda’s home cooking remains hard to come by, that doesn’t mean you can’t try and replicate it on your own—or at your next summer cook out. To try out his Too Much Sauce burger recipe,  visit the Shifteye Photography blog for a step-by-step guide.