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Meet Coco Reinarhz, the Burundian chef blazing a trail for African cuisine

Coco learnt his love of cooking from his mother, and he’s about to start a whole new chapter in food. His Johannesburg restaurant, Epicure, will reopen in a new location next year, with a menu focusing on modern African dishes from across the continent.

Published 19 Apr 2021, 14:37 BST
Burundian chef Coco Reinarhz's contemporary take on traditional dishes from across the continent has attracted foodies ...

Burundian chef Coco Reinarhz's contemporary take on traditional dishes from across the continent has attracted foodies from around the world to his restaurant, Epicure, in Johannesburg.

Photograph by Getty Images

Burundian chef and TWISPER ambassador Coco Reinarhz is advancing the culinary renaissance that is modern African cuisine. His contemporary take on traditional dishes from across the continent has attracted foodies from around the world to his restaurant, Epicure, in Johannesburg — set to re-open in a new location this year. Coco believes a true passion for cooking comes from within, but to be a great chef takes practice, so after a childhood spent at his mother’s side in her restaurant in Kinshasa, he received his formal training at the Ecole Hotelière de la Province de Namur in Belgium. His ambition is to open eateries across the globe to secure a legacy for modern African cuisine that will inspire other chefs to begin their own gastronomic journey with the food he is so proud of. 

Coco wants to show budding African chefs that there’s success to found by harnessing traditional flavours and recipes.

Photograph by Coco Reinarhz

My first memory of cooking something by myself was a simple dish of pancakes at school. When I came home I did it for my mum, a professional chef. I was trying to impress her, and she was very proud. That was a moment that triggered my devotion to the culinary art.

Anything mum cooked was my favourite because I never used to see her that much. She was living a chef’s life; it’s a crazy life, but she loved entertaining and it would never be a simple meal, she’d cook a feast. To see the joy that someone can create by cooking for other people, that excited me the most. I loved her rice with cassava leaves. 

I used to help her in the kitchen, but never had the chance to cook with her on a professional level. I took over her restaurant when she passed away. She always told me to be honest with what I’m cooking, don’t overdo or complicate things.

When I create a dish, it needs to say where it’s come from. If I create a Nigerian dish, someone from Nigeria must be able to recognise it and feel that the dish belongs to them. The furthest I go into fusion is to do a fusion of African food, because I believe that when you do too much fusion, it leads to confusion. When you don’t know what you’re eating, you don’t know where you are.

With modern African cuisine, I play on the presentation because I don’t want it to look the way it looked traditionally. This doesn’t mean you compromise on the taste, texture or quality of the ingredients though.

Coco uses as many local ingredients as possible to create interesting, unusual dishes like kataiff and halloumi. 

Photograph by Coco Reinarhz

When someone doesn’t know a cuisine and you see the joy on their face once they finish eating, it’s really the most rewarding thing that can happen to a chef. I especially like it when someone says, “This isn’t the jollof rice that my mother, or my grandmother or my father used to cook, this is something else.” Jollof rice is a very famous West African rice dish, and I’ll present it like a croquet, or a risotto, but made with the same ingredients. I’ll give it to somebody from Ghana, Nigeria or Senegal, and once they try it, they find all the flavours and say, “Oh yes, this is jollof rice, mmm this is the greatest jollof rice.” 

I want to show the young chefs that you can be successful by being an African chef and doing African food. There’s a growing demand for it. The resilience of African cuisine comes from the chefs that keep pushing, keep trying new things to elevate and showcase the cuisines of Africa. That's one of the reasons I'm sharing my recommendations on TWISPER, to widen the community of people trying out these incredible restaurants.We’re so proud of what we do and how we do it.

I’ve got the opportunity to take over the food and beverage outlets at the Kigali Arena in Central Africa. It’s mainly used for basketball and I’m introducing African food on a different level. For the general public, I’m introducing something that people eat in the morning called a Rolex, which is a chapati with eggs, maybe with a little curry or a stew, in a wrap format. For them to have the possibility of eating something like that in a posh place like this is unbelievable. In the VIP boxes, I’ve created a concept that’s called News of Africa, and it’ll take you north, east, west and south of Africa, through food.

My next goal is to make sure there’s African cooking in school. We’re already working with some schools in South Africa and there’s an event in Geneva at the Ecole Hôtelière de Genève, one of the most prestigious cooking schools in Europe, where I’ll be teaching young Europeans about African cuisine. I remember at Ecole Hotelière de la Province de Namur in Belgium, the top Italian chef would be invited to come and give us lessons about Italian food, a top Chinese chef would be invited, but an African chef was never invited. I want African chefs to be on that level.

The pandemic has shown how cooking can unite us. I started doing more online classes, cooking something from one country, and then another country. So many Instagram chefs have been cooking beautiful meals at home and realised that they’re very passionate. They’ve never been a professional chef, but think, I can share this. 

Johannesburg is a cosmopolitan city, it attracts the best of the best, so we have all types of the best cuisine. Three years ago, when I created Epicure I said, why don’t I just go all the way African? I knew it was a big gamble, but everybody loved the concept. I wanted everything to be high-end — that’s why I wanted a really modern-looking type of cuisine. Epicure is closed until next year, not just because of the pandemic, though; we’ve actually found a new place. I plan to open restaurants in other African countries, and then in five years, to open in the likes of London, Dubai, Paris and New York. 

In Johannesburg, I like the small eateries. In Parkhurst and Greenside there are streets with beautiful little restaurants. I love going there on my day off and sharing these hidden gems with my community on TWISPER. We also have museums and the zoo. 

I use as many local ingredients as possible when cooking, but the ingredient that’s always overlooked is the passion. We can have the same recipe, but human beings aren’t robots, so we’re going to execute it differently. If you have more passion than me, that’s going to make it taste better — it’s passion that you eat.

Essentials

TWISPER is a free social app to share and discover positive recommendations for restaurants, hotels and bars around the world. TWISPER is community-driven, promotes positive values and never sells on user data.

Follow Chef Coco's recommendations on TWISPER.

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