Interview with Chef Yohanis
By Mistre Tekaligne, August 01, 2019
TV personality and healthy eating advocate, Chef Yohanis, has been using local and international platforms to bring to light Ethiopia’s rich culinary history since he moved back to Ethiopia in 2013. Linkup sat down with him to discuss his intriguing journey. Enjoy.
What was your first job in the culinary world?
My very first job was actually at the opera. I used to welcome people and just watch the whole show and make sure that everything was running smoothly. But in the culinary industry, my first job was at Le Miramar – a seafood specializing fine dining restaurant in Marseille, where I got my biggest experience as a chef.
What is the motivation that drives your culinary passion?
I use food as a platform to express art. Once I received my bachelor’s degree in visual arts and came back to Ethiopia, I realized that if I wanted to make a career out of being a chef, I would have to focus only on the small portion of the population, which would be the elite. But I wanted to do something that would involve a much bigger part of my community as I want gastronomy to be available to everyone.
What drew you to the Ethiopian culinary scene?
Back in 2013, I used to work in Starwood Properties. Usually, once you start working there, your career is set; you travel around the world working for this huge company. So I was taken care of. But when I was at the St. Regis, I saw my executive chef using “Berbere”. It made me stop and question myself. For me, it wasn’t just about cooking in the international arena, it was about understanding my culture and bringing my own value into it. So I decided to go back to Ethiopia and start a TV show.
Where do you draw your inspiration for your signature move of blending the modern with the traditional?
The base is the TV Show. The “Chef Yohanis Qegnet” TV Show is a culinary and lifestyle entertainment show which allows us to travel across Ethiopia looking for the best food practices. We are inspired by the know-how and ingredients that we see and use that as a learning curve to come back to my kitchen and create something new based on what we saw.
For example, in Lalibela, there is a bread they make out of oat. It’s a thin bread, almost like injera, but because oat has gluten, the bread is more elastic and lacks the popped bubble texture of injera (which adds flexibility and makes it easier to clump more stew with it). So, as they cook, they gather around the griddle and whistle. They do this so that the sound vibrations from the whistles break the air bubbles trapped in the dough, to give it that popped bubble texture. Ethiopia has such a rich history and culinary legacy that we have so much to offer to the world, but we are kind of forgetting that. My co-writer actually came to Ethiopia to check the facts because he didn’t believe it. We did the trials, where I whistled on my side and he didn’t on his. There was bubbles on my side but none on his.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your journey?
Primarily, I struggle with the consistent availability and quality of ingredients. Additionally, I am concerned about the value we, as Ethiopians, give to the hospitality industry; what service means, what cooking means and how people see it. In France, a chef is well respected and valued for his work. So a lot of chefs dedicate their lives to the service industry. In Ethiopia however, even servers are barely acknowledged when they come to the table. Which shows that cooking and service isn’t yet given much value unless it is media related.
What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?
I just finished a tour for my book “Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa”. The book explores Ethiopian recipes along with their history and helps readers understand why our cuisine is shaped the way it is now, why we have so many vegetarian options, why we don’t have enough sweets and how different regions, climates, religions impacted the cuisine. It comprises 80% of traditional recipes and 20% of my own interpretation. I am also working at the Hyatt Regency where I have my signature menu. For any corporate or social event, people can request my menu. They can even have me cook there live. We are also in the works to start cooking classes at their hotel beginning on 1st September, 2019. And I have another TV Show right now called Addis Guaro, which airs on Kana TV.
Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
I am about to open my first healthy fast food chain restaurant called “Misaka” (Amharic for lunch box) scheduled to debut in January, 2020. As the condominium life is growing on a daily basis and people don’t have the time or money to cook at home, and they can’t afford fine dining on a regular basis, fast food is becoming an important part of food service. Other than that, the book is being translated in to German and Italian languages. We are working on releasing the Amharic edition of the book, in collaboration with GIZ Institute. It will maintain the same quality as the UK Edition, but it will be available at a more affordable price.
Do you have any other message that you would like to share with our readers?
One thing I would like for people to know, especially the diaspora community, is that it’s our duty to convey our traditions to the next generation. Not just for them to know how to cook but to also understand who they are and the values that their ancestors stood for.