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Kenyan chef at The Pentagon serves her recipe for success

Growing up in Mombasa, Frida Karani’s grandmother pushed her to learn how to cook, for her to make a good wife someday. Decades later, she perfected the art and is now an executive chef at The Pentagon, headquarters of the US department of defense

When 37-year-old Frida Karani went to the US as an exchange student in a hospitality programme in Orlando, Florida, in the year 2006, she had never imagined that her cooking skills would one day open the door for her to be an executive chef at The Pentagon; the headquarters of The US Department of Defence.

Ironically, born and raised in Mombasa, Frida never had a passion for cooking while growing up. However, as she admits, her grandmother pushed her to learn how to cook not as a profession, but because Frida needed skills to cook for her family someday.

After her secondary education in 1999, Frida desired to study customer service. But she found herself at Utalii College studying food production. “It is much later when my grandmother’s teachings and mentoring came back to me and I settled to learn the art of cooking,” says Frida.

After college, like many other young graduates, Frida found herself looking for a job. Luckily, she did a couple of jobs in Kenya with hotels and restaurants before she got a chance to work with the Hyatt Regency in Dubai in 2004.

It was a two-year commitment and by the end of it, she decided to apply for American Hospitality Academy (AHA), an organisation that placed foreign hospitality students with hotels to get some experience. “I applied for the programme and got accepted.

Frida (centre) with James A Winnefeld Jr, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his wife, Mary, celebrity chef Robert Irvine, and Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Wes Tavares. Photo/Courtesy

I didn’t renew my contract with Hyatt. In August 2006 I was on a plane to Florida to start my one-year exchange programme,” she recalls.

And Frida not only managed to be on the programme, but also got back to school at the Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts.

Le Cordon Bleu is presently deemed as the largest network of culinary and hospitality schools in the world with over 23 schools in five continents.

Four years later, in the year 2010, she was enlisted in the Worlds Greatest Navy by a Navy recruiter and enlisted as a culinary specialist. She graduated at the top of her class at the Navy’s Advanced Culinary School. “When I got here, I had a few friends from home who helped me settle down.

I won’t lie; I had a bit of culture shock. I mean I had been to Dubai, but Dubai people way of life  reminded me of Coast. But here, it was a new ball game. Life is pretty fast too and bills, well, we won’t talk about bills,” she confesses.

For a culinary specialist, Frida admits that the learning process never ends. Working in the Navy means she is constantly taking classes to improve and getting certifications from the American Culinary Federation. She’s also participated in various culinary competitions both in the US and other nations, including on the popular Food Network show Chopped, which she won!

Award-winning spree

In March 2016, Frida won the Armed Forces Chef of the Year competition, which made her the second woman to win in the event’s 41-year history. Working with a basket of mystery ingredients, Frida wowed the judges with the four-course menu she developed that included seared red snapper and fried smoked oysters served with gnocchi in a clam-tomato broth.

She has won other awards in the same year like the Joint Staff Sailor of the Year, the Armed Forces Chef of the Year, as well as the Enlisted Aide of the Year.

In the year 2017, she won two other awards; the Enlisted Aid of the Year as well as Joint Exercise Grand Prix winner (against Royal Armed Forces). “With trends changing, cooking is something you want to learn every single day and improve your skill,” Frida says.

While many Kenyans in the US are either students in well-paying jobs or run successful enterprises, others struggle to make ends meet.

These challenges have at times resulted in some people, especially the youth, falling into bad company and end up in jail, are deported or even commit suicide. Frida believes that one can always succeed despite the challenges present if they are passionate in what they do.

“The best thing I liked about America is that you can make or break yourself. You can make your path as long as you keep your head straight and focused whether you are a man or woman. Someone once told me if you are in a room with people and you are the smartest one, leave. Always challenge yourself and that’s what I do,” she advises.

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