10 Questions with Mara Plains Camp’s Head Chef

I could see it in his eyes and in something of the intangible. Exuberance, I think the word is. It was as though his spirit was beside itself, overtly ecstatic at getting to inhabit the man it did. The man’s name is Benjamin Maritim and his soft glow emanates from living the life he most wants to lead, from doing what his heart has always called on him to do.

Benjamin is the Head Chef at Mara Plains Camp, on the northern border of the Maasai Mara. I could sense his joy for life from my first meeting with him, as he stood proudly beside the dishes he and his team had laid out before us for lunch. I felt it while talking to him about something seemingly simple, yet wholly consuming – food – as we stood out in the wilderness at a bush breakfast with the wild things of Kenya.

I had to hear more from him. I had to share his spirit with you. And I had to hold onto it for myself. So here it is… our Q&A with Benjamin Maritim, a closer look at the man behind the meals at Mara Plains Camp,  on the banks of the Ntiakitiak River.

10 Questions with Mara Plains Camp Head Chef, Benjamin Maritim

What is your first memory of cooking?

When I was doing my National Youth Service I was assigned to engineering however my roommate was training in hospitality, when he spoke of the cooking and all the skills he was learning I knew I had to transfer. From then on cooking has been my passion.

What five things has working at Mara Plains Camp taught you about yourself, life and love?

  • I have learnt how to interact with different types of people.
  • It’s taught me about different parts of the world.
  • It’s taught me about different perspectives and opinions.
  • I have learnt (a little of) different languages.
  • I have found comfort and built lasting relationships.

How did your path lead you to Mara Plains Camp?

Cooking is my passion and my life and since I learnt there was a chance to be the Head Chef at Mara Plains Camp, I couldn’t stop myself applying. I was called for an interview and I passed with flying colours. Thereafter I committed myself to becoming one of the family.

How do you bring a taste of the land to your dishes?

I learnt to cook western food in culinary school with different international ingredients, but my style of cooking is a little different, as I am using the local ingredients and natural resources from around the community. This allows me to cook fusion style dishes and make unique food with flavours that you don’t get anywhere else other than Mara Plains Camp.

How would you describe the kind of cuisine at Mara Plains Camp and the motivation behind it?

A feast for the eyes, the ears, the nose and the mouth. I take inspiration from the master chefs from around the world and then I like to add a touch of Kenya. Being self-sustainable is the goal so using fresh items from our garden and the local community is key to show off the incredible Kenyan produce in globally-inspired dishes that are fresh, light and healthy.

What inspires you day to day – in life and work?

Guest feedback is incredibly important in my life and work. It helps me to sharpen my understanding and knowledge. It also shows me how important my duties are in the guest experience.

Where do you source most of your produce from and why?

We aim to be true to our local produce, sourcing all our fresh ingredients from the local communities and the farms and coastal regions of Kenya. Mara Plains  Camp has its own kitchen garden with a wide variety of vegetables and edible flowers, however what we do not currently grow here is sourced from the local community farmers. This is one way of promoting the community and farmers and also the products are local, fresh and healthy.

What are some of your favourite local ingredients and dishes?

My favourite ingredients are Posho, Sukuma, Arrowroots, Cassava, Coconut, Banana, Pumpkins and local greens, as well as the amazing local lamb and goat meat.  I cook dishes with this local ingredient like Irio, Ugali, Sukuma, matoke, mbuzi choma, or stew, Swahili fish etc.

What are some of the ways you incorporate a health focus into the menu?

The first thing I focus on in the menu is the clientele, looking at their dietary requirements, ages and then using the ingredients I have to plan menus that are fresh, light and healthy.

I try and avoid adding unnecessary sugar, opting for natural sweeteners such as our fantastic Kenyan honey. Selecting leaner cuts of meat and ensuring there is always a variety of fruits and vegetables with each meal. I want guests to be satisfied but not weighed down with carbohydrate and fat heavy meals.

What do you enjoy most about working at Mara Plains Camp and what makes the camp so special?

Honestly, since I started working here, I have been learning lots and growing day by day in hospitality. I enjoy the sharing of knowledge with my colleagues. Mara Plains Camp is like my family, they are very positive and supportive from my bosses starting with CEO’s, Directors, Managers and all the staff, they are all so friendly we work as the Great Plains family.

Mara Plains Camp is special for many reasons, but the conservation of animals and nature and promoting and helping the community is key. Plus it’s a non-profit company.

10 Questions with AtholPlace Hotel & Villa’s Executive Chef

I have found that getting to know the chefs behind a meal adds a certain depth to the meal itself. As though acting as another ingredient,  enhancing the myriad flavours and scents and revealing the heart of the dish. In the same way that learning about where the different ingredients were sourced, and how and why, gives the art of dining greater meaning, gives the diner, you and I, something to connect with. It is this knowledge and understanding that lets us walk away from the table feeling richer and more alive, more apart of the entire culinary process than most people on the other side of the plate are fortunate to be.

This is the hope behind our Q&As with the chefs of Relais & Châteaux Africa and Indian Ocean. To give you the story behind the dishes you’ll savour in the different hotels and lodges, and to give life to each part of that dish.

Sit down with the man behind the meals at AtholPlace Hotel & Villa in our 10 Questions with Willie Malherbe below.

10 Questions with AtholPlace Hotel & Villa Executive Chef, Willie Malherbe

1. What five things has working at AtholPlace Hotel & Villa taught you about yourself, life and love?

Mmm, interesting question. Okay, here goes. Passion is paramount, patience, self-respect, understanding and lastly, make every second count.

2. How did your path lead you to AtholPlace Hotel & Villa?

Having known and being close friends with the previous managing couple of the Morokuru Family (which includes AtholPlace) for more than a decade, I started helping out when they set up this property and that led me to being employed on a permanent basis.

3. How do you bring a taste of your environment to your dishes?

By using as much as possible local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients and working closely with our suppliers to assist us in reaching this goal. Also drawing from the multiple cultures and their cuisines found in this rainbow nation.

4. How would you describe the kind of cuisine at AtholPlace Hotel & Villa and the motivation behind it?

I would say our cuisine is relaxed with a global influence created by using fresh seasonal, ingredients with the focus being on flavour.

5. What inspires you day to day – in life and work?

Happy customers that let you know they really enjoyed there meal and dining experience is what inspires and keeps me going. In life I would say the privilege of being able to not worry about were my next meal is coming from, living in an free country and being “reasonably” healthy.

6. Where do you source most of your produce from and why?

We try and work with as many local suppliers as possible, fortunately we are blessed in Johannesburg to have great suppliers that will go out of their way to assist in delivering top quality, fresh ingredients.

7. What are some of your favourite local ingredients and dishes?

Funnily enough one of my favorite ingredients at the moment is corn. It’s a vital staple food for most South Africans as well as being a versatile ingredient to work with. When it comes to favorite local dish, I have to say “magwinya’s”  It’s a street food which consist of “vetkoek” or fried bread with a selection of fillings such as curried mince and cheese. Its available on most street corners throughout the city.

8. What do you enjoy most about working at AtholPlace Hotel & Villa?

The comradery in the kitchen is the best….

9. Your favourite dish on the menu now? And why?

Hickory smoked Springbok loin, crisp goats cheese and rainbow radish salad. Reason? I love Springbok and smoking things.

10. What makes Johannesburg such a special place for foodies to visit?

Simply put I would say it is the melting pot of different cultures and their cuisines that make Johannesburg a foodie destination… as well as the passion of the people creating the food, from the top five star establishments down to the lady selling magwinyas on the street corner.

The Hanging Gardens of Londolozi

There is a well-known Chinese proverb that reads, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.” It came to mind as I walked through the endless  gardens of the Londolozi village.

Here, in the heart of a wildlife reserve, with rhino and leopard and baboon roaming freely, was the most bountiful garden of vegetables, herbs and flowers I had ever laid eyes on. A great oasis that provides the kitchen with  produce, lodge staff with food and the gardeners with a source of income. It is a space of beautiful green enclaves forested with towering bushes of health; a space alive and thriving today, but that was, not so long ago, a mere patch of unused land.

Watching the building of the gardens in one of Londolozi’s video clips, I was struck by how much has been accomplished in such a short space of time,  and by the foresight and hope planted with each row of radishes, tomatoes and rocket. It’s these qualities that are required to build anything great, anything of significance, as that saying about Rome points out…

“By creating vegetable gardens in our staff village and empowering our staff to create vegetable gardens in their own rural villages, we all take one step closer to living more sustainably,” writes Rich Laburn in Londolozi’s blog, The Vegetable Revolution.

“We move towards being self-reliant and away from engaging our commonly used systems that are detrimental to the planet… We wish these vegetable gardens to be the catalyst for developing a trend towards living in greater harmony with nature.”

Taking in the different scents and sights in each gardener’s lot, I found not only the answer to how to plant for the future, but how to plan for it in the best way possible.

Discover more about these wilderness gardens in our Q&A with Executive Chef, Anna Ridgewell, below.

How long have the gardens been running at Londolozi and how have they evolved over time?

The Londolozi gardens have been up and running for the past 2 years. We started with about five, we now have 24! Each gardener grows a selection of our most popular and used herbs and leaves such as spinach, cos, basil, parsley, mint and our world class rocket

What is the intention behind the gardens?

The intention was to establish a ‘garden to plate’ food ethos as well as to enable the gardeners to be able to have another source of income.

Who and how are they managed and what kind of sustainable methods are used?

Jess MacLarty and our village manager, Rexon Dlamini run the gardens in the village. Jess holds weekly meetings, where all the gardeners gather together to discuss rotation, ordering of seeds, problems if there are any in terms of bugs or if something is not growing properly.

The method of fertilising the soil comes from our Head Gardener, Kenneth Jazi, who makes the soil using a compost of rhino or elephant dung together with topsoil. This rich soil is then given to the gardeners when they are replanting. To protect against insects, we use a combination of chilli garlic oil which we spray on the leaves.

We rotate the herbs and leaves according to the season to get the most from that particular herb. For instance, basil grows fabulously in winter, so they will bulk up this in winter.

What unique items from the gardens or the wilderness of Londolozi do you use in your cooking?

When the marula trees are in bloom, we gather the marulas and Connie makes Marula jelly! We also love to add the fresh village mint in many of the camp cocktails.

What are some of the challenges of running veggie gardens in the wild?

Baboons raiding the cages!

What is the secret to successful gardening?

Good soil is essential and you have to make time to spend in the gardens. Talk to your plants and give your garden care and effort!

Read more about the gardens of Londolozi Private Game Reserve in these blogs:

The Vegetable Revolution

Why Londolozi is Turning to Gardening

How to Grow Vegetables with Rhino Dung

Spring Harvest