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When growing up in Kenya, Dennis Mwakulua enjoyed a brief career as a rap musician before swapping his mic for a chef's knife. As part of rap group BMW (Blacks Most Wanted), he performed semi-professionally in hotels in his home town of Mombasa, before one of the group moved to the US and BMW faded.
Aged 23, he came to London with just a few pounds to study business and finance, and took kitchen portering jobs to pay his way. But in 1996, he took on a role with Avenance (now Elior). While washing dishes at investment bank Merrill Lynch, he saw Avenance's then executive chef, Robert Kirby (now chef-director at Lexington), doing fish and pastry demonstrations. Impressed, he asked the chef how he could learn; Kirby told him to come and work with him at HSBC Investment Bank in London whenever he was free.
Fast-forward 20 years and Mwakulua is now executive chef at international law firm Eversheds, operated by Restaurant Associates. He is responsible for eight of the firm's outlets across the UK and its head office in London. In addition, as a member of England's National Culinary Team, he contributed to the gold and bronze medals it won at the 2016 Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. Having taken part in many chef competitions over the years, both as a team member and individually,
Mwakulua was able to bring interpersonal skills to the occasion, making everyone feel comfortable and keeping team spirit high in even the most challenging moments.
A results-driven individual, Mwakulua works tirelessly. He manages budgets efficiently and is continually creating and implementing innovative and interactive ways of boosting company revenue. Indeed, he played a critical role in securing the fiveyear contract with Eversheds.
In the past 12 months, he has also overseen the opening of three kitchens and placed robust and market-leading offers in each, taking into account ethnic diversity and geographical differences while also tapping into the local sourcing policy of Compass Group, the parent company of Restaurant Associates.
But his focus isn't always client-facing, and his passion for developing and supporting his team in the same way he was encouraged in his early years is evident too.
His commitments to charitable causes are second to none. He collaborates with a
number of charities in the UK and frequently travels to Kenya for a number of projects. He supports a primary school near Mombasa through the Feed to Educate initiative, and has been involved with Transaid and Farm Africa among a number of educational initiatives that engage food and hospitality.
Nick Vadis, culinary director at Compass Group, says: "The man's energy and dedication to his craft are massive. He has a personality as big as his heart and he will go the extra mile for anybody and deliver."
What the judges said
Simon Esner, BaxterStorey
"Dennis has achieved great things in his business and clearly goes above and beyond with different initiatives and charity work."
Paul Walsh, City Social, London
"A just reward for all his amazing achievements."
Al Crisci, the Clink
"If I could do half what he does, I'd be happy!"
Allan Pickett, the Swan at the Globe, London
Brendan Fyldes Green & Fortune at Sea Containers
Phil Lee-Robinson BaxterStorey
Dennis Mwakulua Restaurant Associates at Eversheds
The Chef of the Year award was split into two categories in 2016 to reflect the advance of private and public sites
2016 Steve Land Gather & Gather
2015 Hayden Groves BaxterStorey
2014 Nick Vadis Compass Group
2013 Rob Kirby Lexington Catering