Name: Dieuveil Malonga
DOB: November 1991
Place of birth: Linzolo, Brazzaville, Republic of Congo
Dieuveil, would you say that the best way to experience the world is through food?
Yes, I think so! For myself, I love to learn new things about the different countries I travel to, and I discovered that food is a good way to do that. When we travel somewhere new, the first thing we ask is, “Okay, what do we drink? What do we eat?” I mean, at the end of the day, I can say is that a five-star hotel in Italy is the same as it is in South Africa or Bali — but what would change is the food. And food is bringing people from all over!
It’s also very common now for people to travel around the world just to eat at Michelin star restaurants.
Right, people will spend a lot of money just to go eat at a restaurant in Copenhagen. For me, I grew up in Europe but I was born in the Congo… And actually, several years ago around 2015, I started to feel like I was missing something. It became my ambition to learn more about Africa and African cuisine, so I started travelling, and so far I’ve been to 38 countries all around the continent.
“That was the best way I found to learn about these different cuisines: to actually go into the village and meet the locals, and learn their traditions and techniques.”
And how was that?
Ah, it was amazing. I started in Cameroon, and then I spent time in the north in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria… But I’ve also visited most places in West Africa: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso. And my hope was just to learn, like going back to school! People often think that all African nations are the same, but what I discovered was that each country has a food culture that is huge! One example is Nigeria; there are three different tribes and each tribe has their own cuisine that is totally separate from the others. That was the best way I found to learn about these different cuisines: to actually go into the village and meet the locals, especially the grandmothers, and try their organic produce, learn their traditions and techniques. That was so inspiring for me.
Of course with the Internet today, you could have also simply watched videos or read articles about these food traditions. Why was it important for you to meet people in person?
As a chef, you must use all your senses: to see, to touch, smell, and of course, to taste is very important. That why I decided to go myself, and to really live this experience.
Many restaurants and chefs around the world are now asking for your expertise in African cuisine. How does it feel to now be an authority on this subject?
Firstly, it is a big responsibility. And that pushed me again to learn more, because the learning never finishes. I'm certainly not finished learning everything, even after all these experiences — I think I would need a lifetime to learn it all. I’m so happy to be recognized for this, and also to be putting African cuisine on the map. It is amazing that people start to get interested in African culture beyond what we see in movies or in pictures. My hope is that maybe people will even come to visit Africa, that they feel inspired to bring what they’ve learned home to their kitchen; the same as me.
How are you including these references and interpreting the different elements in your own cooking?
For example, I love to bring back spices! I’ve got spices from every country I’ve been to, so I’m combining them and using them in different dishes. That’s what it means to me, Afro-fusion: creating a bridge between the different countries, taking something from here and something from there, and making something new. That’s the definition of freedom for me. So when I try out a traditional recipe, I’m adding a modern touch. I have a laboratory here at my restaurant, Meza Malonga, and so cooking in the restaurant is not the same as cooking in the village. I believe in using local resources, so my interpretation of these traditional recipes also depends on the environment: the water I use is different, it could be that the fish I use is different, all of these things depend on the ecosystem — but I still try to keep the foundation.
What intrigued you about the ecosystem in Kigali, Rwanda, where you’ve now opened your first restaurant?
Well, the first time I came here, it was just for a visit. It’s not far from the Congo, where I was born, so I feel at home here. I was really quickly falling in love with the ecosystem. There is so much nature, it’s very green, it’s a very peaceful country. The natural resources are important to me because as I said, I believe in eating what we have in the region. It’s something I learned about in the villages: if there are no mangoes in season, we don’t eat mangoes, you know? Especially since the pandemic, it’s clear how important that is, that all chefs must try to do that. It’s about respect for the ecosystem around you.
Apparently you’ve been training the young chefs at your restaurant to live off the land around them.
Yes! This is very important, even for myself. When we know the product very well, when we know how to cultivate it, the more respect we give. If you like to fish yourself, you will respect the product and you can get even more inspiration to innovate. So that was very important for my chefs: I take them to learn how to fish, to meet the farmers, to understand the ecosystem and everything, to appreciate what a natural gift it is to us, and to put that to use in the kitchen.
Is that how you were trained as well?
Not really, no, I learned this way of thinking when I came back from my travels around Africa. In Europe, when you get any kind of product, they don’t really know where it came from. The fish is already filleted, the meat is butchered… You just have to think about cooking it and serving it. There’s no emotions, no feelings! But imagine you know exactly who farmed your carrot, then you respect that carrot more, and we do something amazing to honour the carrot. That’s also part of the reason I wanted to open my restaurant in Africa rather than Europe.
And how has that experience been for you?
I feel at home here. The good thing is that I'm feeling welcome everywhere. And in this continent, I have many things left to discover; food but also stories and emotions and people. This is also why my culinary networking organization, Chefs in Africa, has been such an amazing platform. We don’t have a big connection like you have in Europe, so the first ambition of the platform is sharing information and connections — to know who is where. I had chefs telling me, “I can’t find a job,” or restaurants saying, “I need a chef,” but no way to connect them… So it’s been very inspiring to make these connections.
It must also be very rewarding to see those connections flourish, and see chefs all over the continent having success thanks to your program.
It’s amazing to see the success from that — even we have a chef who worked with us who is now a millionaire! He started from nothing and we gave him the right connections, now he’s in America and he’s doing amazing. The thing is that food doesn’t have borders, it doesn’t have a language… You cannot buy a Ferrari every day, but you must eat every day! That’s why I think that food is one of the best things that brings people together.