Mike Mwangi on living smart after cheating death

Mike Mwangi on living smart after cheating death
Weekend with the CEO

Mike Mwangi on living smart after cheating death

Saturday February 03 2024

Tribe Hotel CEO and General Manager Mike Mwangi during the interview on February 1, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Mike Mwangi always knew what he wanted to do. As a child, he’d shimmy at his grandfather’s lodge, peeling potatoes, making beds, helping out. He didn’t know it then, but this is what set him on his path from promise to promised land. Now, he is in the Canaan of his career, the General Manager/CEO of Tribe Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel in Nairobi.

His career may be well done, but his words are medium rare; sparse, and terse, not an ounce of excess, shaving off the fat to get to the barebones. “Kitchen,” he says, “is organised chaos.” Not that you can tell from his demeanour, walking languidly, owning the space, recalling how his grandfather would cook ugali, tilapia, and sukuma wiki, not just selflessly but also selfishly, as an assertion of prerogative. Food = love.

At his artsy office, I snoop around and my eyes fall on his Wall of Fame. A picture with homages from friends and colleagues from his last job posting. Some call him Mikey, others Bro, most just Big Mike; all effusive, all saying he deserves it, the big boy becoming the main man. In other words, compliments to the chef.

What’s it like being you?

That’s a tough one. I am energetic, curious, and humble. Someone who loves to do what is best for the community but also enjoys life.

Was this a case of making your passion your paycheck?

My grandparents, who raised me, were in this business. I was close to my grandfather. He started in hotels and went into distribution, then into an inn, bars and restaurants.

Is this a family thing?

My parents are in a whole different sector; my mom is in healthcare and my dad is in public service.

What meal best describes you?

Anything comfort food. Something homely such as ugali. I like my meals flavourful.

What has food taught you about yourself?

Change. Food evolves and so do we as humans. Different people can take things differently, just like food can be accepted in different ways. I am a plexible person, easily able to adapt.

Tribe Hotel CEO and General Manager Mike Mwangi during the interview on February 1, 2024. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Ever had a bad experience in the kitchen?

There was this busy Friday night when I had the biggest cut on my foot from a knife that fell when I was cooking. And I had to keep going because it was a big night and I was the lead line cook at the time.

Are you a head or a heart person?

It has to come from the heart.

Do you have a special meal you used to make with your grandfather?

Ugali, fish and sukuma wiki. We had a  special way of doing tilapia; cut into pieces, and as a sauce. I no longer have the time to do that because the hotel keeps me quite busy.

What was your nickname growing up?

Mike or Brian. My full name is Mike Brian Mwangi.

What remains unchanged about you since childhood?

Sense of adventure. I was always a curious mind.

What do you miss about your childhood?

Being in the house I grew up in Nyeri. As a ritual now, that’s where I spend my Christmas and New Year’s.

What is something I wouldn’t believe about you?

My love for music. I listen to more genres of music than most people would guess. Most just assume I listen to hip-hop.

I also worked in a retirement home for about a year as a nutritionist. That’s pretty much the last phase of someone’s life. These homes have amazing stories. For instance, I worked with a 101-year-old woman who told me about her experience with slavery. She also shared her future forecasts and advised me on what I should do.

It was an unforgettable experience that taught me that I was not going to be young forever. Life changes as we grow older. What’s your legacy, what does your work mean for you from a passion standpoint?

If you were to change anything about how you were raised what would you change?

Nothing. It was a good upbringing, especially because the people I grew up with, who are no longer here with us.

What is the best advice your mom ever gave you?

Be true to yourself, be human, make and learn from your mistakes; and do what you do at your best.

What’s a special memory you have of your family?

We have such an amazing bond between my parents and sister. I remember all of us travelling back home (to Kenya from New Jersey, US) in 1995.

If you could go back to any point in life, where would you go?

Washington DC. That was my last post before I came here. Networking, from being more ambitious, my close friends, the evolution of life, that’s where I experienced most growth.

What’s the one place that calls you the most?

The coastal region. I have found a very big liking of being around water and how the tranquillity of water just calms me down. But I also like nature.

What is one piece of advice younger chefs should ignore?

Being told they are not good enough. There are many different paths one can take as a chef, from sports to health nutrition, and personal chefs among others. The food world has become such a melting pot and food has become a science.

What are you learning about yourself now?

I have become very patient and able to pace myself based on my own time. I was always the first in, last one out. I am learning how to have that work-life balance. Kenya has been a big part of that. It is good to have time for yourself.

What’s the special treat you do just for you?

Sunday is a me-day. Whatever I wake up and feel like doing, no one will stop me. Whether it is driving, going to a new restaurant, or seeing a show; whatever I feel like doing that Sunday.

How do you spend your weekends?

If not at work, then spending time with my family. Exploring. Driving out of Nairobi shows you new destinations.

What matters way less than you thought it would?

Money. I don’t think it is ever enough in that sense. The humbling part of it is why I would make that comment. If someone came with a bag of money and I worked for it, I would take it. When you are younger you feel money is the essence of everything, but when you get older you understand personal connections and having real friends are more important.

What’s the hardest part about being you?

People think I know everything (chuckles). And that is from a career standpoint. But we learn every day.

What is the kindest thing someone has ever done for you?

I had someone donate to a cause I believe in, an organisation that creates awareness about epilepsy.

What is the longest line you’ve stood in and what were you waiting for?

At the theme park hoping to get on a scary ride.

What is the most painful thing you’ve been told?

When I was a young cook, I was told by a chef that if I couldn’t work fast enough, I should think about changing my career. My career was just starting. I quit. I think sometimes people need to hear the awkward truth and use it as ammunition. What hurt most is that I had just offered myself to help, but it also made me ask whether that was a culture I wanted to be in. It has informed most of my decisions since then.

What’s the best compliment you’ve received?

When people say they appreciate what I have done.

What is something you are proud of but never get to brag about?

Moving back to Kenya. To come back and do what I love, and share the knowledge I accumulated abroad.

What is the absurd thing that you love?

Hmm. My love for antique vehicles. I am restoring one at the moment.

What’s in your bucket list?

I want to go to three different countries. Mostly in Africa, and may be one Asian country.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

An amazing steak or a nice burger made from scratch.

What is one thing you are afraid to admit about yourself?

I don’t express my internal fears.

What will people mourn about you when you are gone?

My kindness.

What hack makes weekends better?

Shut off everyone and do what you want to do. No pressure. Just chill.

What is one question people don’t often ask you but you wish they would?

What it took to get here. People assume I just made it here or knew someone but my career spans from 2001. In my first hotel job, I was a steward, and then I became a host.

What’s the soundtrack of your life right now?

Against the Wind by Bob Seger.

Are you smart or lucky?

Smart.

Who do you know that I should know?

My grandfather.

What’s the story of the scar on your face?

From a car accident. It came from the epilepsy I had acquired from another car accident back in 1998. But I wasn’t driving in the first car. I have lived with it for a couple of years, and I have a good support system; at times I forget I even have a scar until someone asks.

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