Following Adventure with Kenyan-Born Hotelier John Aritho

“Have an adventurous mind, don’t take yourself too seriously, speak less and listen more. And the day you stop liking what you do work-wise, start looking for something new.” These words of wisdom come from John Aritho: Kenyan-born hotelier, chef, world-traveler, old motorbike and car restorer — just to tip the iceberg.

Top of his game is an understatement to describe this charming, urbane 41-year-old Renaissance man who grew up in Kenya’s White Highlands, north of Nairobi: “a big farming community and the country’s bread basket.”

When it came to thinking of a career, “It was between basketball, being a chef or joining the Kenyan army.” While he was a good player, he knew basketball wasn’t a practical career choice. His dad, a surgeon who expected his son to follow him into medicine, nixed the Kenyan army. He was also aghast at the chef — “A cook?!” — idea.

Meanwhile, Aritho had discovered the joys of spicy food. “I had two Indian classmates. I’d be given mashed potato and stew for lunch. When I tasted what they brought, it was stunning. I offered to do their homework in exchange for their spicy food.”

And so it was “with my mum’s backing” and to his father’s consternation — “he was horrified and wouldn’t be part of it!” — that Aritho headed for India straight out of high school to train as a chef. The destination was a decision born from a mix of passion and pragmatism. “I wanted to get out on my own. Europe and the U.S. were too expensive and too ‘done.’”

He was drawn by the food. Plus, “I had a teenage rebelliousness.” India seemed exotic; a big adventure.

Eat, Play, Work in India

He went straight to a cookery school in Hydrabad in central India, where the focus was mainly south Indian dishes. He then made his way to Mangalore, close to Goa. “There, I enrolled myself at the university to do a bachelor’s degree in hotel management with a focus on food production.”

Aritho lived in India for four-and-a-half years and was quite an oddity. “An African with a massive Afro in the middle of India. They only knew about Africans from Sri Lanka and South Africa through cricket.”

As an extra college class in Mangalore, he enrolled to study French. Privately, during lunchtimes, he studied classical Arabic with an Imam. “That helped me in Dubai” (oneof the many places he’s run large hotels. Keep reading!). And in the evenings he learned German “from an Indian gentleman who had lived there and taught three of us.”

There was no plan or goal in any of this. “The languages just interested me.”

He also learned a lot of Hindi in India — and picked up his travel bug and bike bug. He bought an old Yugoslavian motorbike. “I traveled state to state. Slept at the sides of the road. Met people in little villages who welcomed me in to enjoy their food.”

He also learned some travel take-aways. “I had to go from the south to New Delhi, six days and seven nights, in a second class train with about 2,000 people. So now when I travel, if something doesn’t go right, it’s a joke,” he laughs.

Aritho will tell you he got into food thanks to his mum. “Being the last-born of five — I was the ‘oops’ baby — I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen. She’s a nurse who loves baking and cooking. I’d watch her and I had this fascination.”

From India, after interning at the Taj Hotel in Bangalore, he returned to Kenya and went to work at the colonial-style Mayfair Court Hotel in Nairobi. It was not too long before the high-end international Southern Sun/Tsogo Sun hotel group took it over, with Aritho as part of the package.

Eighteen years and many adventures later, a lot of them work-inspired, he’s still with them.

Do What You Love

So where has he traveled via work? And how has it fed his foodie bent, given that he’s not the chef he planned to be, but the general manager running the show.

“I’ve lived and worked in Mozambique. I trained staff under trees to open a hotel. How to serve, starting with actually showing them what a spoon is. They couldn’t speak English. The only Portuguese I had was from a phrase book. Mozambique is a good merge between Europe and Africa in terms of lifestyle, cuisine, love of life. It’s very Mediterranean with an African-coastal laid-back feel.”

He’s lived and worked in the Seychelles on Praslin island. It’s a fabulous vacation destination and “the food is great thanks to the Indian influence.” But being marooned on an exotic island that people fantasize about and many only visit for a week or two in a lifetime, “you can get cabin fever very quickly.”

He’s lived and worked in Tanzania where he opened another of the group’s hotels. “I loved it. The Swahili influence of the food; very Omani-based food. Cloves, cardamom — not hot and spicy, but very aromatic. Even the tea is infused with spices. It’s the biggest producer of cloves and cardamon in world. In Zanzibar, they have an open air seafood bazaar every night, right on the beach.

An incidental he liked about Tanzania was the politeness and kindness of people. If you go to a restaurant and you want a Coke, he explains, how you ask for it is, like, “Please, may I disturb you and ask you, out of your kindness if I can have a Coke.”

He’s lived and worked in Zambia. “That was great because it gave me the opportunity do a lot of charity work. HIV is such a big thing there and I loved the fact I could help.” He formed a motorbike club. They’d ride, contribute money, raise money.  “We created a bikers home for homeless children.”

Food-wise, what was served in the hotel in Zambia was Europe and South Africa-influenced.  “Locally, they eat a lot of tuber food. Roots. It’s very starchy.” Nothing to write home about?

“Well, my staff would come to the canteen with locusts as a delicacy. They’d deep-fry them. Other time, it was worms, green and brown, deep fried. And termites, just before the rains. Also deep fried. The abdomen is full of unsaturated fats. In the beginning, I’d say, ‘You can’t be eating that!’”

“But then I ate them too, to show solidarity. But I didn’t get into them and they didn’t go onto the menu.” And then there were the field mice. “Regrettably, I tried those once. They looked so awful. The front teeth protruding and the very skinny tail. But we were in the middle of nowhere on motorbikes. There was nothing else and a woman was selling them barbecued.”

He says that initially, he wasn’t too keen to go and live and work in Dubai (at the Qamardeen and the Al Manzil). He thought it would be so Los Vegasy. But he liked it there, at least for the food.

“Dubai cuisine is basically Lebanese food. Because of the Indian and Pakistani labour force, there’s a lot of Indian-influence food. It’s almost impossible to get real Arabic food although you get the Syrian and Egyptian-influences.”

“The only part of dining in Dubai that’s not fun is that at most restaurants, except for those in hotels, you can’t have a glass of wine with your meal. You drink water or juice only. And the windows have to be shaded if there is alcohol.”

“But the beauty there is that you find so many cuisines. About 2.2 million out of 3 million who live there are foreign, every restaurant in the world is there and it’s fantastic. If you don’t find it in Dubai, it doesn’t exist.” On the down-side, “everything’s imported — onions from Pakistan, tomatoes from Italy — so you pay through your nose.”

He’s also traveled extensively in Europe and lived and worked for brief spells, mainly training stints of a few months, in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Italy.

 It’s About More Than the Money

“I’ve been in the same group — Southern Sun, now called Tsogo Sun — for 18 years. They use me a lot in terms of setting up and training staff; more behavior and consumer interaction. Soft skills. That’s where the need is biggest.”

When he travels not for work — this year he went to Brazil for three weeks and saw three World Cup matches and he was off to Mozambique two weeks after I spoke to him, at Tsogo Sun’s Maharani Hotel in Durban, South Africa, where he’s currently the GM — he stays in B&Bs. It was hostels in Brazil. “When I’m at hotels I’m always looking at the standards.” Not such a good way to get away!”

Aritho goes back to visit his mum and Kenya as often as he can. The rest of the family is spread out. One sister works in New York for the United Nations Food Program. His wife, Janine Douglas, who is Scottish, works for an American software company. “She’s an international traveler of note, regularly in Africa, the Middle East and the U.S. This month I’m seeing her for four days.”

In his life, he believes in balance and in linking things you love to do. “You need to connect the dots around the things you love. I love food, helping people, hosting people. Being a hotel manager, hospitality, is a natural thing.”

And in his career, he believes in the beauty of structure, which helps with the balance.

“As long as you can earn your daily bread, sit in your car and sing, you can stay happy. The day it’s not like that, start looking for something else. I’ve been in the same job 18 years but it keeps changing. My friends say, ‘When do you work?’ I’m learning scuba diving, I teach kids basketball, I’ve climbed Kili and two peaks in the Drakensberg. I take time out to travel. It’s about having the will, not having the money.

“If I had an accident tomorrow and lost two legs and two hands, I would have no regrets. I’ve done the most I could do.”

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.