A Slice of Kenya: Building a Pizzeria in Nairobi, Part 1

Editor's Note: For the next 100 days, San Diego pizza maker Matt Lyons (aka Mattivore) will be living in Kenya, consulting and training staff for the opening of a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Nairobi. In this series, Matt will chronicle his journey from start to finish.

"Position Available: Make the Best Pizza on the Continent (Seriously)"

A few months ago, my brother, Sean, texted me: "Go look at Samin's facebook page, now!" Sean's sense of urgency is often lacking, so the message effectively related a certain haste not typically distilled via text message. Samin is Samin Nosrat, the older sister of a close friend. I don't know her well, but what I do know is impressive: She used to cook at Chez Panisse, co-founded the Pop Up General Store, and learned bread at San Francisco bakery-of-legend Tartine, where she now does pop-ups. I'd heard that through sheer similarity in culinary philosophy, she and Michael Pollan are now collaborators and best friends, and that she and Charlie Hallowell recently roasted a whole goat in Havana in advance of the opening of Charlie's localist butcher shop.

At the top of Samin's Facebook page was this note:

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It was an idea too strange and too interesting not to entertain. I have ten years pizza experience as both a home baker and professional. I've managed pizzerias, made 1000 pies in a day at a huge public event, and I've been a problem-solver at some local pizzerias. Most importantly, I make pizza at a level I can be proud of.

But all that aside, I do not consider myself a "pizza making chef." Maybe "pizza making pizzaiolo," at best, and most realistically, "experienced pizza guy." So I asked myself, if given the opportunity, would I go to Kenya for four months this year? I've built a small but loyal following and inertia for my own modest pop-up pizza project here in San Diego, which would have to go on hiatus. On the other hand, "REALLY SWEET" might mean the dollars I need to take my project to the next level, and a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and experience to boot. Given the level of Samin's credibility and reputation, I decided to at least find out more.

Kevin is an American expat and CEO of a successful chain of cafe restaurants in Nairobi. He's opening a "Casual Dining Neapolitan Pizza/Italian Concept" in September, and he's sparing no expense. The restaurant has already begun a month-long training course for four Kenyan chefs in Naples, learning traditional Neapolitan pizza with non-traditional flair from Enzo Coccia. They've made importing arrangements for entire shipping containers (!) of the best Italian flour, tomatoes, and olive oil, and they have several local farmers awaiting seeds to grow the fresh produce needed for the menu, from Calabrian peppers to fennel for the sausage. And they're counting the days until the delivery of their Stefano Ferraro 160, and the equivalently-renowned dough mixer. The description of the new pizzeria, and their plans for it, culminated with one stated goal: "To make the Best Pizza in Africa (seriously)."

Wow. Where do I sign up? And, more importantly, where do I fit in? If I was intimidated before by the prospect of spending four months in Kenya, now I was intimidated by the prospect of four months in Kenya with guys who seriously have their shit together. But why not see if I had anything to offer?

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At work making pies.

I emailed a resume and cover letter to Kevin, tracing my origins in pizza making, years of experience, and the evolution of my skills. I detailed my uncompromising philosophies on quality sourcing, my passion for teaching, and that little "something crazy about the quest for the perfect pie." "In short," I said, "I have come to dedicate myself to the fellowship of the pizzaiolo and the mastery of ovencraft." I followed that up that verbacious-if-not-overly-passionate crap by cutting some (crap, that is). "I have no culinary degree, don't pretend to have one, and much prefer cooking to administrative tasks."

I also wrote that I love all pizza styles, and don't particularly prefer making the Neapolitan variety typically made with the fork mixer and Ferrara oven they'd bought. And I mentioned a few key details that could've done me in: "I'm 25, and a strict vegetarian. Not political or adverse to cooking meats and seafood, just vegetarian." But, most importantly, I tried to relate. I was available, adventurous, and adept enough to fly to Kenya, work tirelessly, and excel with no bearing, working with unfamiliar people, resources, and surroundings.

A selection of Tribute slices.

Somehow, something clicked. Maybe I was truly the best applicant, or maybe it was Samin's referral, or something else? A few email exchanges later, and this outlandish idea was gaining traction. Then, a day later, my website analytics showed hits in Kenya; I was getting giddy. Kevin arranged an interview over Skype, and then a second with his business partner. The details evolved, and the four months became 100 days, scheduled from the end of August to the end of November. A few more emails later, and I received an offer and a contract. I deliberated with my mother and my lawyer. I've discussed and cleared the idea with my awesome and loving girlfriend and consoled my dog, who is the only one not stoked about this adventure. I've reconsidered the timing of my own business plan, and decided Kenya benefits my project and career in the long run.

Long story short, I signed the contract, and bought a plane ticket. I'm going to Nairobi, Kenya. I'm going to try to help make the best pie on a continent. How will I do this? I'm exactly not sure yet, but I'll let you know.

About the author: In addition to my posts here every two weeks or so, you can also follow my daily activity on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. And if any of you happen to be in or travelling to Nairobi, I hope you'll stop by and say hello!

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