Chef Yohanis Gebreyesus is a world renowned Ethiopian Chef who also works in the hotel industry as a consultant for Hyatt Regency and Ethiopian Airlines. Many know him from his famous cooking shows that aired weekly on EBS called Chef Yohanis. He currently owns two restaurants namely, Weyra in Unity Park and AsaBet in front of Monarch Hotel. He is also an author of the critically acclaimed book called Ethiopia which has won two significant awards, Julia Child Firstbook Award 2020 and has received a medallion from The James Beard Foundation. This interview was conducted in his recently opened restaurant AsaBet that serves exquisite seafood with a menu curated by Chef Yohanis himself. Excerpts:
Capital: When did you know that you wanted to become a chef?
Chef Yohanis: I never had that aha moment. It almost feels like I ended up here by the course my life took. I am an artist at heart. I went to college for visual arts. I still paint. Two of my paintings are even hung up in this restaurant. When I finished college and came back here, I didn’t see what I could do with my degree. People who have art in the country are too few to really practice what I learned. Art isn’t a basic necessity but food is. One thing that I had noticed through was that there wasn’t enough being done with Ethiopian cuisine. I saw the potential to make it into something renowned as it should be. I asked myself why not combine food and art. At school, we were taught that art could be expressed in different ways; it might be through music, dance, painting and even food. I went back to France to join a culinary program in order to do so. I went to the US to work for a while. The job would’ve allowed me travel the world but I wanted to come back to my country and share my skills. I came back and started experimenting with different Ethiopian food. My family has also been in the hospitality business for almost 19 years now.
Capital: It seems like you’ve already done it all but what’s your goal?
Chef Yohanis: I want to show people that food is more than a basic necessity. It’s a human experience. You don’t just eat to feed your body; you eat to feed your soul. I want to change the fact that Ethiopia is known in the world stage for famine. Ethiopia has much more to offer to the world than just coffee. I wanted to only work with fish in this particular restaurant in order to show that a single type of food can be presented in so many different ways. Food is also expensive in this country. Since restaurants have to stock up on all the food on their menu, there’ll be so much wastage. It’s better to specialize in one thing so that you can excel in it than trying to cover everything and be basic at it all.
Capital: What advice would you give to the up and coming chefs?
Chef Yohanis: Chefs need to be very passionate about what they do. If they’re passionate, they’ll excel. They should also be talented in business and not just cooking. It’s not as easy as it looks to be successful. It takes a lot of dedication and a lot of people.
Capital: What are the challenges that you’ve faced so far?
Chef Yohanis: The construction of my restaurants was the most challenging experience I have had to go through. Contractors take their time and it’s very difficult to meet deadlines. People make promises they can’t keep. Excellence isn’t a concept that we have fully grasped as a society. Working with people is also challenging.
Capital: What makes your restaurant stand out in the food industry?
Chef Yohanis: It has different sections. I’ve designed it to have different areas for the take-away menu and sit and dine experience. It’s affordable as well. Our menu items range from 110 to 700 birr. The cutlery was also designed by me which I think is quite rare. Our fish consumption as an entire nation is too low. There are over 200 species of fish in Ethiopia. The city dwellers don’t even feed on more than 2 or 3 of these species of fish. We want consumers to rediscover this food.