Surrounded by see-through water and dotted with huge baobabs, Malawi’s Likoma island is also the surprising location of some of the best lodge cuisine you’ll encounter in Africa — served up by chef Richard Greenhall at Kaya Mawa.
Greenhall moved here with his wife, Kaya Mawa’s general manager Michelle Cavanagh, in 2010 when the couple helped oversee a revamp that would transform what had been a laid-back beach resort into one of Africa’s top boutique lodges — with a string of awards to match.
The chef grew up in Coventry — an “extremely grim” town in the British Midlands, which he “left behind rapidly”. A foodie career happened quite by chance: his first job was cooking “masses of awful frozen food in a packed Irish pub in the north of England to Guinness-sodden Celtic supporters craving junk,” he recalls. “The saving grace [was that] it taught me speed in the kitchen — imperative!”
From churning out pub grub, Greenhall moved on to teaching aspiring chefs at Jamie Oliver’s Recipease cooking school. The celebrity chef is one of his biggest cooking role models: “Though an obvious choice he just rocks with the basic ingredients so well,” he says. He also loves “Yotam Ottolenghi’s rustic bang of flavour” — an apt summation, in fact, of Greenhall’s own style.
Inspiration is “all around”, especially “every morsel that you seek out” when travelling. A highlight from his many visits to India is “the tandoori meat and fish dripping marinade on the embers as they pluck the skewers out of the searing heat of the barrel”. Other times it’s “people telling you a twist for a certain dish (usually my boss… often right!)”, he says.
Greenhall believes it’s important to “think outside the box even with basic ingredients”. This is particularly crucial when the nearest supermarket is hundreds of kilometres away. Bulk vegetables and dry goods come on the Ilala, a rickety ferry that ploughs the length of Lake Malawi and visits Likoma twice a week. Perishables are flown in on the Cessna flights that transfer Kaya Mawa’s well-heeled guests from Lilongwe. However, “my favourite is picking straight from our garden,” he says. Currently they grow mostly herbs (including coriander, sage, thyme and four types of basil), lemongrass, chilli and several varieties of lettuce.
With new menus daily, how does he decide where to begin? “I walk up to a blank whiteboard and work backwards: I always start with a dessert decision then travel back to how the lunch should begin,” he says.
Lunch is always light: think freshly baked bread and hummus, with a salad — like the spectacular curried grilled chambo (a local fish) with lentils, caramelised carrot and red cabbage I had. With sundowners, there’s always a treat — deep-fried cheddar balls, anyone? And then a fancy, flavour-bursting three course dinner: perhaps an Asian-style vegetable spring roll to start with, followed by perfectly cooked pork fillet doused in ginger-orange sauce with mash and veggies on the side. To finish? Dark chocolate and toasted macadamia praline tart with mascarpone and orange sorbet. It doesn’t get much more scrumptious than that.