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The Rise and Rise of Zambian Chef Sungani Phiri

The Rise and Rise of Zambian Chef Sungani Phiri

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The Rise and Rise of Zambian Chef Sungani Phiri

Some say Zambia is the best kept secret in Africa, and this under the radar country certainly has a lot going for it. Aside from being voted one of the safest countries on the continent, it boasts some of the most unspoilt landscapes in Africa, natural resources that include copper and emeralds, and some incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. What Zambia has never been particularly renowned for though, is its cuisine – before now that is.

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Botanica Restaurant: Busika Lemon Meringue Tart, Wild Berries Mousse and Mundambi Macaroons

At Botanica Restaurant, in Zambia’s capital city Lusaka, we sit for dinner. Located in the tranquil Ciêla Resort and Spa, dining here, with the restaurant’s seasonally changing tasting menus, is an innovative gastronomic experience. With Chef Sungani Phiri at the helm, the ethos of Botanica is to transform traditional Zambian local dishes and ingredients to fine dining status. To do this Sungani has journeyed back to his roots, to find inspiration for his unique and pioneering menus, with dishes that showcase elements of the traditional food of his childhood, but with innovative methods and presentations. Passionate about using fresh, indigenous Zambian products, ingredients are sourced from within a 60 mile radius – bringing diners the best of what Zambia has to offer, but in a way they’ve never experienced before. A perfect example of this approach is the delicious Mawuyu (Baobab) Fruit Panna Cotta, served with a tamarind jelly, mielie foam and popcorn crumble.

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Botanica Restaurant: Baobab Fruit Panna Cotta

The Baobab tree is an icon of the African continent, where they can grow to be several thousand years old, and their bark and fruit have long been used for traditional indigenous remedies. The Baobab, often referred to as Africa’s ‘Tree of Life’, produces the only fruit in the world that dries naturally on the branch, taking six months to transform from a green fruit, to a smooth, brown, coconut-like shell. Inside this hard casing, coarse fibres crisscrossing the fruit, hold a creamy-powdery fruit pulp. It’s this pulp that Sungani infuses in coconut milk, before adding a sprig of lavender, vanilla bean, honey and agar agar powder, to make a sublime panna cotta desert, which he serves with a sweet and sour tamarind gel, mielie foam and popcorn crumble – tamarind being an indigenous fruit, mealie (the local word for corn) a staple food in Zambia.

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Botanica Restaurant: Wild Berries Mousse and Mundambi Macaroons

So, who is the man behind the chef’s apron? As a young boy growing up in Zambia, Sungani was a picky eater, often going to friend’s birthday parties and eating nothing at all! When weekends came, to give their mum a break from the kitchen, he and his siblings would cook for themselves – Sungani consistently coming up with the most successful dishes! This experimentation and early cooking practice, ignited his love for food, inspiring him to take his passion further. Signing up as the only boy in his school’s home economics class, from this point on, he could think of little else other than food and cooking.

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Chef Sungani Phiri

With nowhere to professionally train in Zambia, Sungani left Zambia for South Africa to study, before spending 11 years working in various South African hotels, including the Four Seasons West Cliff Hotel, in Johannesburg. Ultimately returning home to Zambia, Sungani ran the kitchens for 8 years at Royal Chundu in Livingstone, Zambia’s first and only Relais & Châteaux property, which is where I first encountered his cooking, more than 6 years ago.

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Botanica Restaurant: Busika Lemon Meringue Tart

Looking for change, Sungani worked in Botswana, Tanzania and DR Congo; ultimately returning to Zambia, where he curated exclusive, private dining experiences in Lusaka. One evening Sungani found himself cooking for the owner of the recently built Ciêla Resort who, after conducting countless interviews, was struggling to find the perfect chef to run the hotel’s fine dining restaurant. Unbeknownst to Sungani, the dinner he’d been asked to cater, was a ‘live job interview’, by the time desert had been eaten, he’d been offered the job, and free reign, to head Botanica. And for the future? Chef Sungani’s style and skill are something Zambia hasn’t seen before; he’d like to be the first in the country to earn a Michelin star, and he certainly has the talent for it.

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Botanica Restaurant: Mungongo Chocolate Paris Brest

Image Credits: Larts Creations

Stories From Sarah Kingdom