Ashley: From a private chef in US to starting restaurant in Zanzibar

Ashley at The Box by Ashley.Maybe restaurant. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Ashley always dreamed about living in Africa and when she came to Zanzibar in 2021, the natural beauty and the people made her to decide that Zanzibar was to be her new home

By Anganile Mwakyanjala

Zanzibar. Ashley, a native of Philadelphia, the most populous city in the USA, has always had a passion for cooking.

She did not venture into the culinary profession until she moved to Miami. Before that, she was a behavioural therapist, but all that changed when the wave of the infamous Covid-19 pandemic stagnated the entire world.

“I never lost my passion for cooking; I had my catering business on the side, which I started in 2018,” she says.

So, when the pandemic hit, she took her last cheque and fully invested herself as a private chef. “I would do events for the wealthy people and such,” she adds.

Miami, unlike many cities in the US, did not experience a complete shutdown, so the catering business was the logical choice for Ashley. Through a chef agency called Chef by Nature, Ashley had the prestigious opportunity to be a private chef for the Miami Heat, the magnanimous NBA champions. Ashley humbly downplays her achievement.

“I was more used to cooking at home, and I had to readjust to be a professional private chef,” she says. She was reliable and professional, and she always kept her word.

Ashley moved to Morocco and became a chef at a palace in Morocco for six months, and that’s when she decided to come to Zanzibar for vacation.

“I came to visit in 2021, but I decided to come back and live here,” she remembers. Ashley had always dreamed about living in Africa, and when she came to Zanzibar, the natural beauty and the people had the impact of making her decide that Zanzibar was to be her new home.

Ashley was suddenly in a new and unknown place. But her gut feeling told her to give this new place a shot. “It was one of the most naturally beautiful places I have ever been in my life. I just didn’t know how I could sustain myself, but I always wanted to be here; I just didn’t know where to start, and for the last two years, I have been here,” she says.

Originally, Ashley never wanted to open a restaurant, though she has a degree in culinary services. Her first thought was not to get into a restaurant business when she wanted to settle on the island. Her close friends al-ways suggested to her that she open a restaurant, and she knew it was an uphill battle and would take all the guts to pull through.

Customers enjoying their meal at The Box by Ashley.Maybe restaurant Stone Town, Zanzibar. PHOTO | COURTESY

Her restaurant, The Box by AshleyMaybe, located in Stone Town, was reopened on November 18, 2023, after it had closed down following the death of Ashley’s close cousin in the US, which forced her to close and go back home for the funeral. During the closure, they had a chance to renovate the place and restrategize their reopening.

The newly improved restaurant is the best of both worlds: fun and convenient for kids, and the restaurant is for everyone. Their menu is hugely inspired by African American cuisine but also by the local Zanzibari food that she tries to improvise every day with her local staff.

The restaurant has a sonic musical sound all the time, which is based on Ashley’s Spotify list. Songs from different genres—jazz, country, hip-hop, and afrobeats—the list has thousands of songs that the guests get to listen to as they feast on the delicacy cooked by Ashely and her team.

“I can’t do anything without my music; music is the beat of my life. My Spotify has varieties. I even have Malcolm X speeches in there,” she says. And guests get surprised when the black civil rights leader’s speeches soothe their ears as they eat. But for Ashley, it comes with territory; as a proud black woman in her late 30s, she has seen it all, and she is never afraid to be herself.

To Ashley, like to many African Americans, the truth about Africa was shredded in lies and false tales about the continent. It’s only now that they get to travel and see the prosperous and vibrant metropolitan cities across Africa that they never knew existed, and she has made it her mission to invite as many African Americans to Africa as possible. So far, more than 60 of them have visited the island.

Ashley’s investment portfolio is vast. She has a cigar company that is based in Miami. She has tried the Zanzibari market, and her cigars sell out too fast, a vivid sign that the market here has huge potential. “I try to tell African Americans that Africa is ripe for business, and for so long we have been lied to,” she shares.

The challenges of investing in a new market like Zanzibar are imminent. The businesses that had the monopoly in the market were not too pleased or eager to welcome a new player in town, and Ashely had to curve her own space rather than ask for a seat at the table. She created her own and was more than determined to create a big enough table for African Americans willing to invest in Zanzibar and Africa.

Her life mantra is “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” She never tells herself no; she always goes for what she wants to achieve and knocks on doors that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago for a young African American woman venturing into culinary services thousands of miles away from the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia.

Ashley has made good use of social media, and she has been going live on Instagram during her cooking sessions, sharing her bonding with the local Zanzibari kitchen staff who are members of her restaurant. “It’s a lot of fun; I have been showing them how to cook my African American cuisine, and they have been teaching me their food,” she says.

The US has been keen to reclaim a spot as the biggest investor in Africa, a spot that China was eager to take over. In the resurgence of the new America, it would be sensible to empower their citizens of African descent as they invest in Africa, but Ashely has not seen any help from the American embassy or the American business chamber based in Dar es Salaam that serves as a facilitator for American investors in Tanzania. “To be honest, I have not received any help; it’s been hard, but I am not one to complain. “I just wish there was a little more help, but it’s fine,” she concluded.

The Box by Ashley Maybe has grown in reputation. After a short closure, it has been revamped to be a go-to place for tourists and locals in Stone Town, Zanzibar, who are looking for a good meal and a vibe as they dance their day or night away.

The amazing cuisine is accompanied by a staff of Tanzanian youths who are eager to welcome the world to Zanzibar. One would never notice that Ashley has been envisioned by a young lady from Philadelphia, thousands of miles away from the spice island.