By Jenna Kees, Derek Rudolph and Cesar Colon
Coming to America
The building smells of spices you could find in any Middle Eastern or Indian restaurant. The walls are decked with tapestries and masks. Denis Gahara, the founder and manager of the Kenyan Café, works alone until the early afternoon. His lunch-time customers speak as though they are in a sound proof conference room.
Born and raised in Kenya, a country in western Africa, Gahara grew up in a more rural working class culture than the bustling university atmosphere that he lives in now. He learned about cooking at a very young age.
“In our country, being a cook doesn’t mean anything,” Gahara said, “You cannot make a life out of it because everybody cooks.”
Gahara says the interests of his parents shaped his future.
“My dad, he has a meat-raising business, so he helped me out.” Gahara said.
Gahara started to do work on his dad’s farm at the age of eleven cutting up poultry for the meat.
“I didn’t know I was a cook, but my mom was calling me one.” Gahara said. He used to help his mother with the cooking at a local church every Saturday as a child.
“I never spoke English before I came [to America],” Gahara said. The Kenyan native has been living in Morgantown since 1999 and commuted to school at Fairmont State University.
In Kenya, Gahara grew up in was a village of about 40 people and everybody knows who he is. Gahara has lived in Morgantown for years never has met the people who live close to him.
“Here I don’t know my neighbor, who lives downstairs.” Gahara said, “I’ve never seen him.”
Opening a restaurant for the organic-minded consumers.
It was very difficult for Gehara to find a place for his restaurant.
“It’s very expensive to open a restaurant,” Gahara said, “given the fact that you need a lot of things.”
The restaurant that used to occupy Gehara’s space closed down about three months before Gahara got the rights to use the building. He got a deal to use the old equipment after developing a business plan influenced by larger food and tea chains, such as Starbucks, and analyzing why the previous owner had to close down.
“Usually it is easier to open a business where another business has closed,” Gehara said, “because there are some customers who know the place.”
The Kenyan Café opened in May of 2009 and has been serving the Morgantown area with Kenyan-style recipes that have meats like beef, chicken, and goat as well as dishes for vegans and vegetarians.
“I don’t use an item that doesn’t say ‘all natural’ or ‘organic.’” Gahara said.
Gahara goes to great lengths to get the organic ingredients for his dishes. He buys organic foods in places as far out as Pittsburgh and buys in bulk to save money. The organic items included are items such as milk, sugar, tea, vegetables, and meats. The search for deals on organic foods is a constant process.
“It’s expensive, but I have customers who understand.” Gahara said.
Gahara claims that the Kenyan Café is the only restaurant of its kind in the area.
“I know some Indian restaurants [in Morgantown] that have something similar,” Gahara said. “The nearest I know is [in] Washington, DC.”
The Kenyan Café attracts a fair amount of travelers and locals who are looking for a different kind of bite to eat.
One of the café’s customers, Amy Ayler, always tries to eat at new restaurant in Morgantown.
“The food is just so different,” Ayler said, “in a good way.”
Ayler says the “authentic feeling” of the dishes is what keeps her coming back to the Kenyan Café.
“The chicken curry is my favorite,” Ayler said, “it has its own unique taste and is very different from anything else I’ve had before.
“My main drive is that meals we cook have to be balanced,” Gahara said. He seeks a balance between proteins, fiber, starch, and carbohydrates.
Despite the language barrier and the full-time job of running a restaurant, Gahara feels positive about his life in America.
“I can be anywhere,” Gahara said, “I worry about people that can’t adapt.”
Gahara has his eyes open for other “avenues” than living in Morgantown and said he would even be open for someone to manage the restaurant for him.
“I would love to be in Dubai, if I could, Singapore if I could” Gahara said. He remarked how he has been in Morgantown for a decade, but he’s open to being somewhere else.