Chef Sheally, to whom Indian food is both an intrigue and a way of life, talks about his journey from Northern India to now spicing things up at Sarova Hotel.
As we drive up to Sarova Panafric to meet with the Director of Food and Beverage Operations for Sarova Hotels, I ask one of the guards if Shailender Singh is in. He has no idea who that is. I initially think I might be pronouncing the name wrong, but later learn that it is because this chef (by profession) is known to everyone as Sheally. A few minutes later, I am seated across from him at his desk wondering if the purple colour of his Sikh turban signifies anything. I make a mental note to find out afterwards. Sheally is chatting away about the hotel, and I already feel like I have known him for a while. He has that effect on people, a skill probably honed from having worked in hospitality for about 25 years.
At 44, his passion for the culinary arts has seen him work all over his home country of India, South East Asia, America, Europe and now Kenya where he’s been for about 10 years. All the while, he’s served numerous celebrities and heads of state including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Elton John, Brian Adams, Roger Waters among others. He has recently been touring the world, bringing international wine and food concepts to Kenya, and his accolades are far too many to list on this page. For all his work outside the kitchen, however, I quickly find out that he is one to regularly put on his chef’s apron and dive right in to either cook or train, because that is where his heart truly lies.
Having been born and brought up in Northern India, Sheally explains that his love for food has a lot to do with his upbringing. “I come from a family where we would start discussing lunch at the breakfast table. My dad is an architect who travelled a lot and so from a young age, we were introduced to both international foods and those from different parts of the country because he always carried something for us. My mother is also a fantastic cook and all those influences rubbed o on me and the journey has never stopped. Indian food has therefore always been a way of life. Being a chef, it is an intrigue, particularly the scientific aspects of it.”
From Sheally, I learn so much more about Indian food which while I grew up eating, grasped only the tip of a gigantic iceberg I never would have fathomed existed. Indian cuisine is very complex, after all, or like he aptly puts it, “It is very diverse and elaborate…it is a tongue twister and a palate teaser. It has been adopted by many cuisines to influence the world food.” Testament to that fact would be a quick study of Kenyan cuisine. We discuss Indian food being imbibed in mythology, the love for spices and how that changes from North to Southern India, foods to eat in different occasions and how India being like a subcontinent in itself, dishes change every 100km depending on demographics, traditions, season and much more.
The conversation shifts to what he does away from the hotel, to which his first response is “Thinking about food.” Sometimes he does that while travelling or watching movies. He also dabbles in pottery, a hobby he picked up in Nairobi. His wife is actually a potter and they have a small studio at home. He invites us for a class. “Sounds exciting,” I respond, “but only if there will be another pot with some extra spicy non-vegetarian stew simmering in the kitchen.”