On private chefs

A French woman had been kidnapped, so tourists didn't go there anymore.

Lamu, 2 degrees south of the equator, just south of Somalia: a barefoot island of narrow dirt walkways, lush-lashed donkeys and storied Swahili houses for the European jet set; a new secret.

Over the week of New Year’s Eve, a transplanted community establishes itself, Nairobi relocated to the seaside: addresses and invitations given in the language of rented-holiday-homes. Come for lunch at New Moon, drinks tonight at Bembea.

We know each other from other places: Juba, Mogadishu, Goma, riotous Kenyan dinner parties that end with muddy dancing on the parquet.

Ours is Italian-owned, glazed butterscotch terraces, with a floating scent of almost-jasmine, rising and pervasive, its source a mystery, and a cook named James wearing a chef’s jacket, sweat and earnestness.

What do you like to cook, I ask him.

Fish-chicken-meat-pasta-rice-lobster-thermidor-anything-all, James says.

I go with Elias, our housekeeper, to the market. In the late morning, there are four stalls of fish: enormous snappers, red and white, tuna heads with clear staring eyes for KSH100 each, thick slabs of stingray and a woven basket of prawns, giant ones enterprisingly arranged on top.

At our lunch-feast, the fish is dry and solid. I wander down to the kitchen to give guidance before the banana-leaf-ginger-stingray follows suit.

When you cook it, it must be very very hot, I say.

James nods knowingly. I will put it in the oven. You want me to turn on the oven before I put it in?

We spend the week together; a lesson a day, both ways. How to flash-boil crabs, how yeast works, why coconut rice should be cooked with fresh coconut in the pot. Then, there are the things that can't be taught.

Every morning, James makes perfect, fresh chapati with crisp edges that melt on the tongue.

We awake to platters of fish samosas and coconut pancakes and jugs of fresh juice, pale from the local oranges: yellow vesicles inside mottled green.

Guatemalan filmmaker Pedro makes ceviche from the snapper and we throw a party with the cheese his wife has brought from Barcelona. There is rum from his family estate, smooth party-cognac, drunk neat, with a block of ice.

At brunch, there is fresh coconut water to be laced with White Cap lager.

We dance to Jorge Ben on the boom pole of a dhow named The Boss, speakers blasting País Tropical as we sail. We feed each other crumbling candies of cardamom and peanut while treading water.

We eat whole barracuda rolled in flour and turmeric, pan-fried so the fine flesh flakes with a fork.

Out for dinner, we order dark chocolate marquise as an entree, rich and cold with smears of fresh mango; because we can.

We drink negronis in a tiny bar, dancing with sun-crusted ladies all in white carrying tiny dogs.

One night, we watch a Tarantino on a bedsheet.

On the last day of the year, we swim the kilometre across a gusty channel, towards glasses of fresh passionfruit and Kenyan cane, with a support boat named the Lady Gaga.

At dusk, we eat tiny local oysters, gentle and savoury, from the shell. We toast the new year on a roof with motley glasses, take a boat to a beach party and sneak off to play Marco Polo in a deserted pool by the bar. We sip double-spiced masala chai on a rooftop swing at sunrise.

In the first nights of 2016, the sea is thick and viscous, heavy with salt and phosphorescence.

We leave our clothes in the sand, run naked into the waves; breaststroke in glitter glue lit by the moon, dark limbs sending a million bioluminescent sparks flying.


Elias and [sometimes] James at La Joya house, booked through Clinton at Lamu Holiday Solutions, www.lamuholidaysolutions.com, +254 (0)721 447 129
Negronis and chocolate marquise at Peponi Hotel, www.peponi-lamu.com, +254 (0)722 203 082
Beach parties and Marco Polo at Majlis, www.themajlisresorts.com, +254 (0)773 777 066