Chef-patron John Goffin cooks up endless epicurean love letters to the Rwandan terroir at his super-stylish Poivre Noir restaurant, which he co-owns with his wife, Nathalie Bonte. Neither John nor Nathalie was born in Rwanda (John was born to Burundian parents in Belgium, while his wife comes from Cameroon), but both feel a strong sense of belonging and culinary commitment to Kigali. Poivre Noir (which John and Nathalie opened in 2014) was recently described by The New York Times as “the best spot to taste the creative fusion that marks Kigali”.
In order to appreciate the vitality of the contemporary Kigali food scene, it is necessary to understand its recent history. Two decades after the horrific Rwandan genocide, there is a conscious nation-building strategy in all areas of social and economic life. This strategy impacts directly on the work of chefs like John. He says, “ours is a society that is constantly growing. A lot has already been done since the end of the genocide and there is still a lot to do. “Being a chef at this time and in this place is very exciting. It feels like I’m taking part in designing a new identity for the country; like I am part of a broader force in which young, dynamic creatives and entrepreneurs are shaping the future.”
As a chef, John finds inspiration in “the high-quality Rwandan ingredients all around us. Ours is a bistronomy-style restaurant – which means a casual ambience with fine-dining flavour – so wonderful ingredients are a primary requirement. “We get organic tilapia fish delivered to us daily from Lake Cyohoha, which is about 30 minutes from Kigali. It is superb grilled simply and traditionally. We also make use of great-quality, local beef that is very lean yet tender and flavoursome. I have access to wonderful dairy products including raw milk and ikivuguto. I grate the local Kivu cheese into croquettes. I make ravioli stuffed with wild dodo [amaranth]. We also serve magnificent wild mushrooms from Musanze in the north of Rwanda near the volcanos.”
Much of John’s work has a French feel and his aim is not to create dishes that are traditionally Rwandan, but rather to use his cooking to reveal the delicious and dynamic mood of the moment. For example, he mentions his use of tree tomatoes, which are “all over Kigali. People eat them as fruit mostly but, at Poivre Noir, we use the juice with grilled duck breast. I feel that the sweet-sour tree tomato reduction sauce reflects the taste of our terroir.”
He adds that “in recent years, we have seen the Kigali food scene changing a lot – the country attracts increasing numbers of business travellers and tourists with high expectations, so we have to show them how food can be great in Rwanda. It is about showing them the quality of the local products.
“The economy is growing and, as a result, there are new restaurants opening every month, so you have to be creative to stay in the competition. I think this place’s specific energy and positivity shows in my food and in the ambience of our restaurant.” www.poivrenoirkigali.com
By Anna Trapido
Photographs by Nathalie Bonte and Chris Schwagga