Rwandan restaurant hopes to heal the scars of genocide

Editor's Note: Josh Ruxin is the director of Health Builders, the author of "A Thousand Hills to Heaven" and can frequently be found tweaking recipes and mixing drinks at Heaven Restaurant in Kigali, Rwanda.

After we were married eight years ago, I convinced my wife, Alissa, to leave New York City to move with me to Rwanda.

We both had always wanted to have some impact on health and poverty somewhere on the African continent, and Rwanda was easily our first pick. I had worked in different capacities with the government since the late 1990s, and had been moved by the country's ambition to become the "Singapore of Africa.”

Although reminders of the 1994 genocide were fresh, the country was moving rapidly on its promise to build a new nation. Great public health projects were afoot, and the young president was romancing private investment from all over the world. My wife bravely took the plunge, sight unseen. She expected the worst.

What she saw amazed her: The country was, and is, remarkably clean and safe – well beyond what you would find in other nations on the continent. It was cleaner and safer, day and night, than you’ll find in many parts of New York City. There were no bribes to be paid, construction was happening at a staggering rate and the weather was like Southern California year-round. She set to work with orphans of the genocide, many of whom were in need of scholarships for university education.

There was a flurry of aid programs at the time for agriculture, childhood health, AIDS and education. The deep challenge for the nation was to build a tax base to sustain that growth and improvement after the rescue dollars faded. The country needed jobs and economic growth. It wasn’t enough to help the kids get educated, they needed jobs after getting their diplomas. They also needed temporary jobs to help them finance that education, as there certainly weren’t scholarships for everyone. Where were those?

But, Rwanda had a big tourism hook: the amazing gorillas up on the misty volcanoes made famous by Dian Fossey. Many jobs surrounded those safaris. When the tourists wanted a great meal to fortify them for their hikes, there was nada. Coffee? Hit-or-miss in spite of producing some of the world’s best for export. Alissa saw the future.

She and I love great food. Although she’s no cook (I wear the apron in the relationship – that’s how I captured her heart), she hunts down the best possible food experiences wherever we’re traveling. Rwanda, at that time, was a food lover's wasteland. Standard fare was goat, beef or fish brochettes with fries. Restaurant service was somewhat of an oxymoron – we’d arrive, wait half an hour for a menu, find out that most of the menu was unavailable, then wait as much as two hours to be served a flavorless meal. It was no wonder most Rwandans preferred staying home to eating out. To boot, the very culture of eating – perhaps due to food’s scarcity in lean times – frowned on public consumption. You wouldn’t see people hawking tasty street food as is the norm elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, Alissa decided a world-class restaurant and training facility was the way to go. Sure, she had no experience in construction, or in running a business, but she did have that thing that Americans are known for: wild, joyful confidence.

The first few months after opening Heaven, our restaurant, were rough. We worked into the wee hours and struggled to break even. Figuring out pricing, timing, customer service and even securing a steady supply of ice made for daily trials. Most of our servers had never set foot in a restaurant, and certainly none had ever worked in a great one.

When customers were seated, the staff’s instinct was to fade into the shadows and wait to be called on rather than to proactively engage. Even smiling did not come naturally and most adopted solemn dispositions. Those behaviors didn’t exactly move our mojitos.

Little by little, the staff started to get the hang of it. Word of our guacamole spread through the city, and the team’s growing sparkle earned loyal customers.

The kitchen was one of the toughest challenges. The cooks wanted to cook up “Belgian”-style food, like boiled potatoes, that were the lesser artifacts of colonial days. We wanted fusion. That's when Alissa noticed that the dishwasher, Solange, was cooking staff meals in the kitchen. The staff reported that she was indeed the best cook. Promotion granted.

Over the years, Solange has trained under Michelin-starred chefs, one of whom asserts that she makes the best risotto à la minute anywhere. Not bad for a survivor of the genocide who is the first member of her family to go to university and supports a dozen relatives.

That’s what real poverty reduction looks like, and Heaven is serving it up. Actually, Rwanda is serving it up in nicely sized portions, every day of the year.

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