Takes the Lead at One of the Most Luxurious Banquet Kitchens BY SUCHETA RAWAL
PUTTING IN THE WORK Being in a male-dominated industry, Wandui had to prove herself to her peers and earn their respect. She claims her reason for success is hard work and constantly pushing herself. “I learned knife skills, butchery, and how to cook so many different cuisines when I went to culinary school in Atlanta. At the St. Regis, I learned to make sauces and stocks from scratch. But I didn’t just stop there. I wanted to learn more so I can rise to the top. I networked with all the other departments and asked them to show me everything about sourcing, budgeting, leadership, etc.,” she adds. Wandui’s culinary techniques span a variety of cuisines, including Italian, Latin American and French. When diners like Congolese basketball champion Dikembe Mutombo host galas, she whips up elegantly plated masala-rubbed steaks with sweet potatoes and ugali, drawing on her African roots. LUXURY AT HOME Before COVID-19, Wandui worked long hours and the fast-paced cooking environment def ined her life. Once the state issued an executive order limiting gatherings, all of the hotel’s events were canceled and Wandui and her staff were furloughed. 18 CUISINE NOIR | SPECIAL EDITION 2021
To reinvent herself, she started making African-style lamb, chicken, beef and vegetable stuffed samosas and fresh savory chapati in her home kitchen, which she sold to people stuck in the house. “They could store in the freezer, reheat snacks for families, and add the chapatis to stews to make quick weeknight dinners,” she says. Orders for her African homestyle food started pouring in from all over the country and she would ship them out in ice boxes. “The mailman came to know me. I was there 3-4 times a week,” recalls Wandui. “It helped me out a lot because it kept me busy.” Some of her clients also reached out for help in creating personal banquets at home while they celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and backyard weddings during the pandemic. Wandui recollects, “For a birthday party, I made bacon risotto, roasted Brussel sprouts and lamb for six people and packed it really well. But I also sent them pictures of a plated dish and the table layout. Virtually, I showed them how to set up the table with f ine china, flowers, and votive candles so that they can have the St. Regis luxurious experience at home.” INVESTING IN FUTURE LEADERS Fortunately, most of the hotel’s events booked before the pandemic have been rescheduled, but on a smaller scale. Instead of 600-person balls, there are smaller, socially distant banquets. This means Wandui is back in the kitchen facing new challenges and implementing signif icant changes in her operations. Because of the aftermath of the pandemic, Wandui also faces limited supplies of ingredients and has to improvise quickly. For example, if she gets a bad batch of asparagus, she runs to the nearby farmers market to purchase sunchokes, or if she didn’t get the seasonal berries ordered, she alters her breakfast display to what she can f ind. “I always f ind a solution f irst, then communicate to the client right away. They always seem to understand,” she says. Wandui’s biggest personal achievement is proving that a Black woman can be an excellent leader in the kitchen. To inspire others to rise up, Wandui employs mostly women in her kitchen and mentors girls in Kenya studying culinary arts. She is f irm yet kind, understanding yet demanding, and never displays her weaknesses in front of others. “I play mother and boss at the same time.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: SALVADOR MARCH
Chef Veronica Wandui is one of the few Black women chefs in the country to lead the banquet kitchens of a luxury hotel. She exemplif ies that hard work and focused leadership can help you get to your goals. But the road here was not easy. Wandui grew up in a large family in Nairobi, Kenya. She attended Save Our Souls culinary school and came to the U.S. through a green card lottery program. When employers wouldn’t recognize her African culinary degree, Wandui enrolled at The Art Institute of Atlanta and later earned a business management degree. Her career path includes an internship at the Georgia Dome sports stadium, owning a catering business, and working in the kitchens at different Starwood Hotels. In 2009, she joined the brand new St. Regis Atlanta hotel, starting as a garde manger supervisor and working her way to executive banquet chef. Her job now involves curating memorable dining experiences at the hotel for guests celebrating weddings and hosting conferences. She meticulously orchestrates the demands of event planners, sources specialty ingredients, coordinates menus and runs a smooth kitchen that serves hundreds of guests simultaneously.