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Coming to Canada from Zimbabwe in 2013, Chef Thomas Kagoro got his first job at McDonald's before heading behind the line of Edmonton health food eatery Greenhouse Salad. Falling in love with the industry, he simultaneously attended NAIT for the culinary apprenticeship program, remaining with the team at Greenhouse for five years.
From there, he explored kitchens of various hospitality groups before joining Chakalaka, a globally inspired tapas bar in Calgary, in 2020.
We met with Chef Kagoro at Chakalaka to find out more about the love and passion behind his Zimbabwean cuisine, and how he’s managed to spread love and flavour opening in the most difficult time imaginable.
Chakalaka is a very multicultural concept in regard to the food, drinks and also the preparations that go into them. How do you curate this, and where does the inspiration come from?
The inspiration is from the word Chakalaka, which is a relish that you can share and have with a variety of dishes. The concept is trying to capture a wide range of people so not just people from my Zimbabwean culture but others as well.
It's inspired by the word fusion and wanting to bring in a robust flavour while having the ability to make flavours work and balance. You want to have something that's going to be favourable to the palate and suitable to each and every person.
How important is it to you to reflect African flavours, and how are people responding to them?
It's really important to me because I want to showcase what we can do, what we can put on the table. So far, the experience and the response are that a whole lot of people love it.
In some of my dining experiences, the food that I've tasted in different cuisines is mostly bland or food that makes you want to add a little bit of salt. The advantage of our way of cooking is that it's fully seasoned, flavourful and you can either go with the flavour [result] or you can add. Anything you do after is just to make it better, you're not taking anything away from it.
Hot stone cooking is front and centre in your techniques. How do you, as a chef, account for quality people preparing the final stage of their food?
We provide proper training and proper instructions for how to prepare the meat. The meat is coming out to you raw and we went with meats that are very comfortable and have no room for error. The waiter or waitress drops the stone on the table and also explains to guests how to use a compound flavourful butter on it with accompanying sauces.
Our exotic meats — like the alligator ostrich or kangaroo — cook like steak so you can have them medium rare, medium, etc. Our frog legs cook like chicken and have to be fully cooked so you leave it on the stone for a long time.
You also offer some unique proteins. What advice would you give for chefs wanting to work more exotic fare into their menus?
My advice is to try it. Before you say it's not good, try it and see what you can do. Add some herbs, make it flavourful, make it pop. Add your best ingredients that you think will actually taste good with it. Even if you want to add in thyme, rosemary, however you want to make or marinade it, everything is going to be in the way you prepare it.
Don't go heavy on any spice that will take away from the natural flavour. You always want to experience the natural taste of the animal.
Chakalaka opened in February of 2021 — right in the middle of the pandemic. How were staffing and recruitment different during this time, and how have you retained your team?
We were really heavy on faith and believing. We had originally started working on Chakalaka in October of 2020. Then, we started posting advertisements, received resumes and got good team people who came in to join us in the first quarter.
We do have some people from the start who are still going strong. Others had to leave for personal reasons.
What has been the hero dish that you know will resonate with guests and is easy to make, with your best margins?
Definitely the Caribbean jerk chicken. It's pretty easy to make and is a personal ingredient that I've put so much adjustment and work into. Even if I'm not from the Caribbean culture, it's something I know for sure when it comes to flavour that it's good.
With each dish, as long as I put love into it, I believe it's a hero dish.
Speaking of inspiration, how did you find it for your dish today while using Club House La Grille® Spicy Pepper Medley? Anything that would be helpful for other chefs or operators to know about it?
One thing I really found about Club House La Grille spices is that they can fit into any ingredient, especially if you want to make anything savoury or boost anything in flavour. The marinating process of them just makes life so easy and the flavour out of them is just phenomenal.
I use it for the spicy kangaroo that we're featuring today. It blended in perfectly with all of the other ingredients I did with it. It has that heat, saltiness, pepperiness and everything that you need in a spice medley ingredient.
Any message you’d like to pass on to your fellow restaurateurs from coast to coast as they too navigate Canada’s ever-changing foodservice landscape?
Don't limit yourself. Don't stop. You never know what the next day is going to be like. If you want to go for something, do it, try it out, give it a chance, have hope, have faith.
We miss 100% of the shots we don't take. If you're going to do it, do it. Challenges are going to come but nothing good comes easy. It will always take time to have everything come out and be beautiful in the way that it does. At the end of the day, success is the result.
• Spicy Kangaroo Taco
2021 Edition of Coast to Coast
Club House for Chefs uncovers the behind-the-line tactics and bounce back of chefs and operators across Canada as restaurants navigate not only reopenings but re-inspiration. Explore more