insight - Elias Ketuta
Written by and photography by Stephen Peaple
From the kitchen at Klein’s Camp, with awe-inspiring views of the Serengeti, chef Elias Ketuta serves up freshly prepared dishes sourced from his own organic garden.
Klein’s Camp, set in a remote corner of the infamous north-eastern Serengeti, offers a truly unique Tanzanian safari experience. A private wildlife sanctuary within a 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) wilderness wildlife concession leased from the Ololosokwan Maasai community, Klein’s Camp overlooks the wooded hillsides, rolling grasslands, marshes and forested riverbanks that surround it.
The camp's enviable location, situated in the path of the annual Great Migration, presented a challenge for its kitchen staff, which is headed up by Chef Elias Ketuta.
“When I came to the kitchen we had to rely on produce coming to us by plane. Our herbs and spices were dried, and I wanted this to change.” Elias explains.
So Elias and safari tourism specialists &Beyond, who operate Klein’s Camp, put together a team, and created their own organic garden. “The garden has changed how we cook here at the camp,” explains Elias proudly.
The produce in the garden feasts off the rich Serengeti soil. “We grow all our own fresh herbs, such as parsley, thyme, dill, ginger, lemongrass, and many spices. We also grow avocados, papaya, lemons, tomatoes, bananas, mangoes, carrots, and more,” explains Elias pointing out the tidy rows of healthy plants. The nutrient-rich soil enables the team to try varieties not usually found locally. “We have the only orange tree in the Serengeti!” he exclaims.
The garden (called a shama) sits at the bottom of the valley near the Grumeti river, just visible from the camp. A trio of gardeners – who grew up together in the same village – live on-site full-time. They have become quite adept at growing a wide range of produce throughout the varied seasons. “The rainy season [March to May] is our most challenging time,” explains Elias. “Over many years we have found ways to keep the gardens from washing away. Every day we learn more about the plants, and how best to grow them.”
As well as being market gardeners, the on-site trio are also vegetable askaris (security guards). The gardens are popular not only with guests, but with the local wildlife population too. A simple wire fence keeps most of the wildlife at bay – even the huge numbers of migratory herds that pass through twice a year – as does the experience of the local Ololosokwan community, who have grazed their herds alongside Africa's wildlife for generations.
“Lots of animals try to enjoy our produce,” Elias explains. “During the daytime, baboons are our main problem, as they climb the fences so quickly. Their garden favourites are tomatoes and green peppers. We can’t even go to lunch if they’re around.”
But an even bigger problem – in more ways than one – are the elephants. No fence can stop such a large animal intent on a feast, though Africa’s migrating pachyderms tend to extend their trunks over the fence rather than flatten it. However, one crop gives them the biggest problem.
“They go crazy for pumpkin!” laughs Elias, though there is a serious tone to his voice. “When it’s fully ripe, they can’t stop themselves from trying anything to eat it." Proof shows in part of the fence that has been visibly repaired from the previous season's harvest. Pumpkin is a favourite of guests too (though they show more restraint!), so to keep prying trunks at bay, Elias and his team of gardeners are looking at alternative ways of growing this versatile squash, perhaps even away from the garden entirely.
Back at camp, the kitchen – a hive of fragrant dishes emanating from the wood-fired oven – becomes an impenetrable fortress when not in use. “At night, hyenas come close, and mongoose. If we leave out anything, even if it’s locked tight, it will be gone by the morning.” Elias says.
This is part of Klein's zero-tolerance policy to ensure there is no complacency with the local wildlife. “Monkeys and hyenas are very successful groups of animals in the area, and we've seen examples across Africa where operators have, over time, allowed monkeys right up to the camp, and it causes problems,” explain managers Matt and Tiff. “So even overnight we have security to ensure the animals keep their distance.”
Protecting the produce is only part of a day’s work at Klein’s Camp. Each day Elias decides the day’s menu, then radios down to the trio in the garden who pick what's required.
Produce created by the gardens is actually sold to Klein’s, as one of the many community empowerment schemes put into place by &Beyond. The order is loaded into the sturdy wheelbarrow – which sits each day like an objet d'art in the dining space – and then pushed up the steep, winding path to the kitchens.
“Our fresh ingredients really make our dishes,” Elias says. “Every guest wants the recipes for our soups: carrot and orange, pumpkin and coconut, sweet potato, leek and potato...
“For our Zanzibar Chicken I roast the pieces; add sautéed onions and garlic, and top with a sauce made with cloves, turmeric, cardamom, cumin, ginger, and cinnamon. Our pan-African cuisine uses herbs and spices from Africa; yet the food should taste familiar – not too exotic or spicy. We prepare the menu to suit the activities of the day, and the climate: chilled soups and other cold dishes, calzone, and local fish such as tilapia that is dipped in egg, crusted with toasted bread crumbs, and fried in olive oil to make fish sticks for luncheon.
“I like to grill,” says Elias “But more than anything, I love to bake. Guests enjoy our breads, and we make loaves, rolls, pizza dough, and flat breads. Sometimes I put herbs or seeds in the breads and rolls – marjoram or parsley, or poppy seeds.” Elias also bakes delicious cakes, served warm in the dining area, or taken out on safari drives as part of the day’s picnic. “We cook these in an outdoor [pizza-style] oven. I have to judge the temperature because there are no gauges,” he adds. Elias determines the temperature by his experience with different woods used in the cooking.
Like many of the staff at Klein's, Elias lives nearby, 17km south east, with his wife and children. Every tribe has its traditional dishes, and across Tanzania these include staples such as green bananas, ugali (the national staple of corn (maize) meal), and makande (a mix of corn (maize) and beans). Cow‘s milk is also a staple, with cow, goat, and sheep the choice for meat.
When &Beyond came to local communities to offer training and jobs, Elias was offered the job of chef. “When I first came from my village, I was very nervous. I didn't know how to cook an egg,” Elias explains.
Cate Davis, one of &Beyond’s chef trainers, explains. “We train and train and train, and the more we train the more we learn, too. We teach our chefs about what our well-travelled guests will expect, how to assemble the ultimate game-drive sundowner snack box, the most stylish 'surprise' hamper, and the perfect private deck dinner. We, in turn, learn about customary African hospitality, and the warmth of an African kitchen where spices mix with laughter and cyclical African songs.”
As the garden has flourished over the last decade, so has Chef Elias Ketuta, bringing the flavours of the Serengeti to the table in the most breathtaking setting.
Several years ago, Klein’s Camp joined with Tanzania’s Njiro Wildlife Research Centre and trained ten Maasai women in the art of bee-keeping. Maasai honey is now sold in Klein’s Camp shop, proceeds are used to buy more traditional log hives, bottles, and labels, as well as providing more training in the art of Maasai apiary.
Roasted Nut Honey
Dry roast the nuts in a heavy pan until rich gold in colour. Warm the honey over a gentle heat and toss in the hot nuts. Delicious when served with ice cream, Greek yoghurt, or roasted bananas.
For a host of delicious Pan-African recipes, &Beyond have produced a cookbook, A Kitchen Safari: Stories & Recipes From The African Wilderness, that includes dishes such as South East Asia and Portuguese-African-influenced peri-peris, to West African grains and pulses. Recipes are taken from &Beyond’s kitchens across the continent.