While working as a chef in top hotels in the US and Europe, Yohanis Hailemariam was subjected to surprising comments related to the 1980s famine in Ethiopia. Some people even suggested that hunger had inspired his career.
Hailemariam returned to Ethiopia and started Antica Restaurants & Farm 11 years ago with the hopes of using his culinary skills to change perceptions about Ethiopia.
“It’s not really that those comments touched me, because I never really experienced hunger in my childhood. I have always seen food everywhere, tasty food actually. I realised the only way you can actually change an image is within – the people themselves saying we have more to offer than just what the media is talking about.”
His passion for cooking was inspired by his mother. “She loved cooking and was always cooking. She even cooked for her wedding before changing into her gown,” says Hailemariam.
Based in Addis Ababa, Antica targets Ethiopia’s high-income consumers and expatriates in the city. The restaurant serves a mix of African, Italian and Ethiopian cuisine. Some popular dishes include teff-based pizzas and pastas.
Teff is a small, round grain that grows in the highlands of Ethiopia – rich in calcium, iron and protein – that is grinded to make flour.
“I want to really create dishes inspired from the Ethiopian and African culture into a more modern [taste],” he says.
In the last decade, Ethiopia has changed in many ways with the economy growing faster, the private sector expanding, and people’s income levels on the rise. Food choices are also evolving, creating opportunities for businesses like Antica.
“I am seeing numbers of people willing to try something new, they are more daring. This gives us many opportunities to try different products, different techniques and create something different,” says Hailemariam. “And they are more health conscious.”
Launching a TV show
Although “it is extremely difficult” to change his country’s image, Hailemariam notes that digital technology presents Ethiopians with an opportunity to counter stereotypes perpetuated by foreign media for decades. In coming months he will be launching a TV food show to showcase Ethiopian cuisine.
“While studying abroad I learnt French cuisine, international cuisine… but I did not know specific Ethiopian cuisine recipes. So I decided to do this TV show to both rediscover myself and at the same time promote Ethiopian cuisine and try to take it global by adapting it more to the international taste.”
The TV show has three sections: showcasing high-end Ethiopian food; authentic dishes mostly popular in remote areas; and then blending the two to come up with a new recipe.
It is being developed in partnership with Michael Tesfaye, who recently returned to Ethiopia from abroad. And it will also serve as a platform to promote the teff-based pizza breads and pasta for sale in international markets where gluten free products are popular.
“Teff is a healthy alternative for flour. Ethiopian food ingredients and spices are mostly organic and will appeal to health-conscious consumers. We want take these products to international retail stores,” says Tesfaye. “The secret is in building a brand globally so we have greater bargaining power and do not end up making 10% on our product with the 90% profit share going to distributors.”
Melting of cultures
Hailemariam first studied for a degree in fine arts in France, but after graduating decided he wanted to do something that would affect everyone and not just the elite who can afford expensive pieces of art. And so he studied to become a chef.
“In my career I have learnt that to be able to create something, like a new trend, you need to know yourself first. As a chef, I had to learn from my culture and then try to adapt it to the rest. So this connection between cultures, this melting of cultures, is what brings something new and makes a chef different from others,” he says.
One of the major hurdles he has encountered is accessing produce. Antica sources from a variety of distributors enabling it to compare prices and have options to choose from.
“But in Ethiopia, getting good seafood is hard and I did specialise in fish dishes. I wish I could get fresh seafood.”