Philip Nucca was a teenager when he came to the UK from Kenya. From his homey kitchen back in Nairobi to the kitchen in an English pub in Sheffield, Nucca has always cooked with determination and an ever-running innovative mind.
It was late night when Nucca finally stepped out of the kitchen, having wrapped up an intense dinner rush. There was, however, not a trace of exhaustion on his face, “I don’t really get tired from cooking.” Although not chatty, Nucca projected a relaxing temperament. He had a sniff of the beer I ordered for him and named it immediately. “A sharp sense of smell is important; I need it all the time when cooking,” Nucca tried to elaborate on his remark, “like determining the freshness of meat and deciding on the right spices to go into dishes.”
The culinary experience in Kenya is very different from here, especially in terms of heat. “Food in Kenya is a lot spicier, I need to bring down the heat for diners here,” says Nucca with elaboration, “also some of the ingredients we use in Kenya are not easy to find, so I have to find substitutes sometimes.” The experience and memories from Nucca's childhood back home are the main source of his innovation in cuisines. “I never cook with any recipe that’s not my own,” Nucca asserts. His cooking style is much based on the learning from his mother and grandmother, although he never tries to duplicate the recipes. And this style of cooking is usually very spontaneous. “I depend a lot on my instinct, usually I just go with whatever ingredients that I feel could work, and then I’ll just find out if it does,” the proud chef says while casually leaning back against the chair. This is also influenced by his family, “we rarely write down any recipe; we often just go with whatever that feels right.” And now it's the supreme principle in his kitchen. So far, his attempts have seemed to be successful. “Last week I introduced my latest dish, and it was sold out in one day,” says Nucca with a proud smile.
His latest experiment was lamb stew- a Kenyan dish adapted to British taste and with a touch of his own innovation. “I use oregano, we don’t use that back home, but I think it goes really well with lamb.” The stew is cooked with a variety of spices and two types of chillies- green and red- and thus is expected to strike the taste bud with a blow of spiciness. Apart from the stew itself, Nucca also makes a new attempt to the side, replacing the standard potato chips with baked sweet potato mixed with potato mash. “You’d be amazed how sweet potato could enhance the texture and flavour,” says Nucca confidently. And the dish does seem to be a success given the quick sold-out.
Nucca learns from everything that he encounters, be it a recipe, a cooking show or an incredible dish; then out of instinct, his mind starts to run all the probable adaptations to the cuisine. “You’ve got to have passion, to cherish what you do so that you can carry on for a good long time.” To still talk about cooking with such a high spirit after standing in a small kitchen for more than 10 hours, doing nothing but making food, it takes sole passion.
Although enjoying the status quo, he has a big picture in mind. His habitual brainstorming for new and unique dishes is a means through which he achieves the ultimate goal- inspiring more tastebuds with mature skills and fresh ideas for cuisines. “This is only my first stop,” the chef's face shines with a hopeful glare. And indeed Nucca has gone back to university to build his capacity in business management since 2015. "This will enable me to run my own catering business and cook for people with adventurous tastebuds."