Thirty-year-old Esther Atieno is the winner of the recently concluded Smart Food cooking show – a 13-episode reality TV show that was hosted by the Kenya Television Network (KTN) on Sunday evenings. Esther, who is a trained waiter and caterer, was crowned winner and won the title ‘Smart Chef’ during the finale of the show on June 4, 2017. The Smart Food show is a joint initiative of ICRISAT and the Kenyan media whose aim is to raise awareness on drought-tolerant crops (sorghum, millets and legumes), educate the public on their nutritional value and demonstrate different interesting ways of cooking them. The show was a success and attracted a rating of 800k viewership per episode.
In the Q&A below, Esther talks about her experience on the show.
Q: How did you find out about the Smart Food show?
A: I learned about the Smart Food show on Facebook; I was online one day when I stumbled upon a shared post by Susan Kamau, the TV host. It was a call for auditions for a cooking show. Having grown up watching Susan Kamau on her cooking shows on television, I knew the show would be a great learning experience. I was excited, but not quite sure if I wanted to be part of the show. I later consulted my friends and family, and they encouraged me to sign up.
Q: Why did you sign up for the competition?
A: I had just quit my job as a District Manager at one of the biggest restaurant chains in Nairobi, and I wasn’t sure what to do with my life. One thing I knew I wanted to do was cook. After I had quit my job, I started cooking for fun;
I would cook and take photos of the meal and share them on my social media pages. The feedback I got from my followers encouraged me to make more meals and post them online. I decided to sign up for the show because I wanted to share my skills with the world.
Q: Who inspired you to start cooking?
A: My mother has been my biggest inspiration in my cooking journey. I have been cooking for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a small town in West Kenya called Oyugis. Being a girl, one doesn’t have a choice when it comes to kitchen duties. My mother taught me from a very young age how to cook different meals. By the time I was nine years old, I had learned how to make ugali (a dish made of mostly cereal flour cooked in boiling water or milk to a stiff consistency).
Q: Did you think you had what it takes to win?
A: I never doubted my ability to cook. I look at it as a gift from God. I signed up for the show with a very positive attitude. I was very confident on the audition day and my confidence earned me a call back from the judges. I knew I would emerge victorious if I trusted my capabilities.
Q: Tell us about your experience in the show – with the judges and the other contestants.
A: The experience was very challenging for all the contestants. Most of us were clueless about Smart Food, the judges were expecting the best from us, besides that, we had very little time to come up with interesting dishes. If we didn’t we would get eliminated. Having to work in groups was also challenging, everyone is different, and misunderstandings were a norm. The judges were very helpful despite being strict; they instilled knowledge in us that is not easy to come by. As days went by, Smart Food grew on me. I previously did not know about the nutritional values of these foods and therefore was not utilizing them as much.
Q: How did you perceive the Smart Food before?
A: When I signed up for the Smart Food show I knew it was about cooking, but I wasn’t expecting that we would be expected to use “smart food” as the main ingredients during the competition. Growing up, I consumed finger millet porridge and sorghum ugali. I was not very enthusiastic about these meals. I thought they were very traditional, not tasty, boring and that only old people should consume them.
Q: Has your perception of these foods changed?
A: When the show began, I only knew how to make beverages, ugali and soups using Smart Food. I had no idea that finger millet can be used in more ways than in just beverages. The most fascinating thing about Smart Food is that they are locally available and very delicious when prepared. Smart foods are very nutritious and very affordable.
Q: What does it mean to you that you won the competition? The scholarship and joining Strathmore…
A: Winning the show is a dream come true, not only do I get the Smart Chef title, I also get to enroll in the Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya, for a culinary arts course. I have always wanted to study culinary arts, but I wasn’t able to. I have a certificate in food and beverage service which I opted for because I didn’t qualify for a culinary arts course. I always dreamt of studying. Getting the opportunity at the prestigious Strathmore is very humbling.
Q: How has the experience enriched your life?
A: The show has landed me opportunities I wasn’t expecting. From the show, I have received invitations from people who want me to cater to their events, the most exciting opportunity was from two diabetic patients who hired me to make meal plans for them using Smart Food. I am very grateful because I get to do what I love most and make a living out of it. I am now fully in the catering industry, and I hope to expand my business soon.
Q: What do you look forward to after the competition?
I am passionate about diversifying meals, and I would love to impact the world differently with Smart Food and the skills I gained from the reality TV show. I am looking forward to educating the world about healthy eating. I am also looking forward to more opportunities that may come up.
Q: Will you cook more Smart Food at home?
I am already cooking Smart Food in my home. My 10-year-old son enjoys the peanut soufflés that I make him after school. Iam also learning how to make more pastries with finger millet, sorghum and pearl millet. I started making Smart Food dishes for my relatives during family gatherings.