When Queen Elizabeth II insisted on feasting on Ugandan dishes

When Queen Elizabeth insisted on feasting on Ugandan dishes
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (L) sit during the opening of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Serena International Conference Centre in the capital Kampala November 23, 2007. REUTERS/James Akena (UGANDA)

Kampala, Uganda | URN | The year 2007 will remain in the memories at Kampala Serena Hotel, and 15 years later, the veteran staff there still remember the 21st day of November and the blessings it came with. 

On this day, Queen Elizabeth II started her visit to Uganda and spent four nights at the hotel, the natural choice for one of the most prominent guests one would host. Serena was the only truly 5-star hotel in Uganda at the time, and the presidential suite fitted the requirements set by the queen’s handlers for her ultimate comfort during her visit to Uganda.

The hotel had just been re-opened in 2006 and renamed Serena from Nile Hotel and Kampala International Conference Centre after the government privatized its management when it was selected to host Queen Elizabeth II.

President Yoweri Museveni commissioned the refurbished facility in November 2006 as one of the major venues for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2007. 

However, it was not until December that Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa told Parliament that the queen who was also the head of the Commonwealth would be residing at Serena, settling speculation that State House Entebbe was being refurbished for her.

Immediately, special training programs for security and hotel personnel commenced, and installation of communication and security equipment had to be installed as responsible government officials and technocrats consulted experts in South Africa, Canada and the UK.

What was known as a Presidential Suite back then, was then renamed a Royal Suite, a name which is maintained to date. By that time, Daniel Kang’u was the director food and beverages department at the hotel, and Eshton Muthai was one of the senior chefs.

“It was a phenomenal experience. It was a historical moment,” says Kang’u, who has since been elevated to general manager.

He says that while they were elated at hosting the monarch, it would later turn out to be a windfall for the company, as world travellers would seek to know more about the hotel and the royal suite. As expected, there was hardly any other public or private activity at the hotel or the conference centre, which used to be characterized by a buzz of activities.

“We had just opened the hotel one year and a half before, and she was the highest profile of all our guests. It was a lot of teamwork, and we successfully hosted the queen,” Kang’u recollects.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth inspects the guard of honour upon her arrival at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda November 21, 2007, at the start of her state visit to the country and ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The Commonwealth meeting starts Friday in Uganda’s capital Kampala. REUTERS/Stephen Morrison/Pool (UGANDA)

One of the main challenges they had was identifying a chef who would be assigned to prepare the Queen’s meal after she reportedly told her handlers that she would take food prepared by a chef at the hotel. So, preparing a meal not just for a foreigner, but an 80-year-old woman, and, arguably, the most prominent head of state, was going to be a headache for the hotel management.

This is until they were told that the queen had directed that she would feast on a local traditional meal prepared by a local chef. The natural choice was Muthai due to his high expertise in the local dishes, despite being born, bred and schooled in Kenya. Having had no complaints at all but compliments about the food and the house service from the queen, the management concluded that it was successful.

“She was very happy. She took pictures with staff and even invited over of our chefs to go and work in Buckingham Palace, where they do a lot of banquets. He went there and worked there on banquets,” he says of his colleague Muthai who has since been elevated to the position of executive chef, heading all chefs at the hotel.

“Her majesty has an army of 20 chefs – and because they travel everywhere she goes, there needs to be plenty of them on hand,” said Darren McGrady, a former royal chef at Buckingham during a recent interview. During his stay at the queen’s service, Muthai travelled with her around the world as part of the army of chefs.

Kang’u says that since the hosting of Queen Elizabeth II, many prominent travellers and high state dignitaries have visited the hotel, and many toured the royal suite. These include Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko of Japan, Princess Zahra Aga Khan, and Mswati III, King of Eswatini. In 2019, the hotel ranked 5th among the seven most loved hotels by the royalty globally according to CNN Travel, in its guide for those seeking to travel in the “royals’ regal footsteps.”

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“High-profile guests praise the exceptional service, as it’s impossible to leave this much-loved flagship Serena resort without being enchanted by the genuine warmth of Ugandan hospitality,” CNN Travel said.

The other hotels listed were Cliveden House in Berkshire, England, Gstaad Palace in Switzerland, Spice Island Beach Resort in Grenada, Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives, Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, Portugal and Emirates Palace in the United Arab Emirates.

The spacious royal suite’s comfort features one expansive master bedroom with a large walk-in closet, a work desk and a private balcony. It has a living room, a visitor’s bathroom, a dining room and a kitchenette, while the suite’s lounge has separate entrances to the bedroom and living room, while the spacious bathroom features a separate walk-in shower. The GM declined to tell what the cost is, but a worker there said one has to part with a minimum of Shs 1.3 million a night.