In Malawi, there's often food, but rarely money

In land where many face hunger, the cooks at Don Brioni's Bistro are serving gourmet pizza

At Don Brioni's Bistro in Malawi's sleepy capital, Lilongwe, trendy Paris "chill-out" music wafts from the speakers. Pizza-chef Thomas Ndhlovu is not very familiar with the genre, but he hums along anyway.

"It's very interesting," he remarks, "these 'white' things."

The lighting is dim, the ambience is mellow, and the menu features médallions de porc à la crème and boneless chicken breast in yogurt and ginger. It adds up to what locals call a mazungu – a white person's kind of place.

The diners are, indeed, mostly white – aid workers, diplomats, travelers, and the handful of British citizens who stayed after independence here in 1964. In a country of 11 million, where most are poor and some 3.2 million are facing hunger this year, according to the United Nations, there are few who can shell out 130 kwacha (US $1.50) for a side order of garlic bread.

Tonight, as well as last night, Mr. Ndhlovu recommends the "Quatro Estaciones" – pizza with ham, salami, mushrooms, olives, tomato, and green pepper – for 425 kwacha (US $5). If he spent his entire salary on Quatro Estaciones, he could eat just six pies a month. He smiles shyly at the thought.

In any case, he says, he prefers sima – the stiff, tasteless corn porridge favored by Malawians. "It is my traditional food," he explains. "And also, we eat it due to financial reasons."

Ndhlovu is typical of many here, who face food shortages even though food is often available. Lack of rain has hurt recent harvests, and government corruption and mismanagement have only exacerbated the problem. But even when food is available, many have trouble paying for it.

"We are different, white people and us Africans," says Derek Mbewe, the barbecue chef. "White people eat so much because they are not worried about later." He puts a heap of French fries next to a humongous T-bone steak and sends it out. "There is so much food in America that they even can send it over to feed us," he says. A few minutes later, the steak comes back. A tad more well done, please, and perhaps some mayonnaise.

"We are not jealous," says Mr. Mbewe. "That's just how it is in this world."

Francis Muale comes from a farming family. He had some schooling, but was pulled out early to help with the planting. His constant and secret dream as a child, he admits, was to be a driver.

"I had some friends from the village who went into the profession and I admired them," he says.

When the crops failed again a few years ago, his parents packed him and his brother off to the capital with instructions to make some money and send it home. After many months he got his first break as a trainee Don Brioni's.

"When I come back from trips abroad, I bring photographs of food from fancy restaurants," says Brian James Saword, the bistro's eccentric British-born owner. "And I sit with staff discussing things like 'vertical' and 'color presentation.' "

"I went in as a dishwasher," says Mr. Muale. "But I kept looking over at head chef Joe Malamula and asking him many questions: 'How do you do this? And this?' Finally we all agreed I would be a chef in training."

Today, Muale is the No. 2 chef here, specializing in soups. His favorite is bean chowder with a dash of cream. But he makes a mean minestrone as well.

"I grew up in the village. All we had was vegetables and ground nuts. Once a month we might have meat," says Muale. "No one there has ever heard of stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts."

Head chef Malamula meanwhile, has other dreams. The third runner-up in this year's Mr. Malawi contest works out every day before starting work, and wants to, one day, move to South Africa and become an aerobics instructor.

"Most people in this country don't do much weight lifting," he admits as he arranges a slice of toast near a liver pâté appetizer. "A lot of people in my country are sick. A lot are weak and most are hungry. There are some dying. So why in the world would you go lifting weights?"

"But I have seen something else," he says. "And I want to be part of a different world."

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