You’re never too young to dream big – these words were always reiterated to Savana Dearden, a pastry and cuisine chef from Tanzania, when she was a little girl. At 25, she sounds like the gentler version of Gordon Ramsay, a British celebrity chef known for his fierce temper in the kitchen, aggressiveness and a food critic that restauranteurs fear. Though Savana doesn’t embrace any of those virtues, she is inspired by Ramsay for his hard work, team work, strict demeanor, love and finesse in the kitchen and in cooking.
A family affair
Savana grew up in a family that loves cooking together. Whether it is her father, brother, mother – everyone cooks. “Cooking was a big part of our family while growing up – my whole family would come together, and everyone would prepare at least one meal and we would feast. Everyday felt like ‘food’ was a celebration,” Savana recalls. It inspired her even more because she loved the way food connected her family.
Her mother used to bake a lot when Savana was a child and would always let Savana in the kitchen to help her out. But Savana was more interested in licking the leftovers of the cake cream off a wooden spoon. Her parents always encouraged her to be in the kitchen creating her own dishes from a cookbook (the good old days when YouTube wasn’t the centre of our lives).
Though her first ever independent cooking was a fail, she never once doubted herself. “I was 13 years old when I made my first apple pie but it was a mess because I added too much baking powder. But that taught me something – it was a learning curve,” says the young pastry chef.
As Savana was growing up, she aspired to become a doctor and kept cooking a hobby. When she shifted schools, from Tanzania to Australia in 2010, her aspirations changed with what she wanted to become. She asked herself, ‘what do I really like doing?’ – that’s when Savana decided to professionally venture out into becoming a certified chef. “The school that I moved to had a hospitality course that I took up and that was one of the many steps I took into turning my dream a reality,” says Savana.
When Savana was about to finish high school, her father opened a restaurant in Adelaide named ‘Faraja’, inspired by the time he spent in Tanzania. After high school, she worked at Faraja for six months. The restaurant was one of its kind that offered Tanzanian cuisine in their menu along with other cuisines. But Savana’s father had a bigger picture in mind – he wanted to provide a platform for people who had a tough time getting jobs. These included prisoners who had finished their tenure in jail and refugees. “My dad wanted to employ and create a space for such people who wanted to get their lives back on track and I am glad he did that because we had some really nice people working with us,” Savana says.
Working at Faraja and being able to work with people from different walks of life made Savana even stronger into pursuing this. It molded her not only as a chef but as a person too. “I was used to the laid-back environment of my home kitchen. It wasn’t long before I realised that you not only had to be quick on your feet, but you also had to think and work fast. In a commercial kitchen every minute counts. It is like an orchestra with everyone having a role to play,” Savana says.
The French romance
After a sabbatical, at 19, Savana went to France to pursue her dream of becoming a pastry and cuisine chef. She lived there for a year where she studied for six months and worked for the rest of the year.
One of her most notable creations is a French wedding cake known as ‘the croquembouche’. Not an ordinary wedding cake that we come across. As Savana explains, it is a typical French dessert taking over traditional wedding cakes.
“This French dessert is quite a complex one- It is a piece made completely of profiteroles and these are filled with crème. The piece sits on a base and is made into a tower-like high conical-shaped structure. Caramel is used to bind the pastry together and the decoration of spun sugar, caramel, almonds, fruits and flowers makes the entire creation a delight for the eyes,” Savana explains. Though she has made this elegant dessert just thrice, the rest of the desserts she creates speak volumes about her.
She then worked in various places before deciding to go back to study some more in Melbourne, where she spent a year and a half before returning to Tanzania.
Not your ordinary pastry chef
One would think that Savana has a sweet tooth for getting into pastry/dessert making but the truth is she stopped eating meat a few years back. As we are still trying to figure out whether she is a vegetarian, vegan or a pescatarian – we will stick to the fact that ‘she has an art of creating never-seen-before desserts’. Her creations, to mention a few, range from Sao Tome banana caramelised and cocoa glaze tarts, Bonbonniere, German bee sting dessert to Mille feuille. Savana considers herself a freelance pastry and cuisine chef. But the good news is that she soon plans to open a-one-of-its-kind pastry shop in Dar es Salaam in a year or two. “When you show people something different, they are willing to go for it and try. And that’s the same thing with desserts. If you are good at something, being in Dar es Salaam, it definitely pays off,” the pastry chef says.
A fine line
Professional women chefs in Tanzania still walk a fine line in the kitchens of top hotels and restaurants. But Savana is one personality that is making a restaurant kitchen less sexist. She says that you got to believe in yourself. “I’ve not had a bad, terrible experience but I know that women chefs here are still undermined. A stereotype still exists. It takes time for male chefs to warm up to you – for instance when they see your work, they realise ‘oh she works as hard as me’ – so it is a slow process,” Savana says, adding, “there are pros and cons to every place. For instance, in Australia, there is a high regard for a ‘chef’ because people spend a lot of time and money to study becoming a professional chef – you have to go through years of apprenticeship and courses to get certified. Here in Tanzania we still have a long way to go,” she says.
It’s always exciting for Savana to see new cafes and restaurants opening up that understand every aspect of the culinary industry.