Kenyan-born and raised Frida Karani began her culinary journey at Kenya’s Utalii College and worked in the hotel industry before moving to Dubai in 2004 to serve as a saucier at the Hyatt Regency on a two-year contract.
She says that her cooking skills, although honed through training and competition, started at age 10, in her home country. “My passion for cooking started with my grandmother,” she said in an interview with Department of Defence Live. “When I was little, back in Kenya, I used to go out and play with the rest of the kids, but my grandma would tell me, ‘You need to learn how to cook. That way you can cook not just for yourself, but when you have a family.’’’
Instead of renewing her contract at the Hyatt, Karani opted to apply for the American Hospitality Academy (AHA) exchange programme.
“I applied for the programme and was accepted. In August 2006 I was on a plane to Florida to start my one-year exchange programme,” Karani was quoted as saying by African Warrior.
“When I got there, I had a few friends from home who helped me settle down. I won’t lie – I had a bit of culture shock. I mean, I had been to Dubai, but the Dubai people’s way of life reminded me of Coast (where she grew up). But in the US, it was a new ball game. Life is pretty fast too and bills, well, we won’t talk about bills,’ she said.
The exchange programme led to an opportunity to join the highly prestigious Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Orlando, Florida. The school has branches on five continents and famous alumni worldwide. She graduated summa cum laude with an associate’s degree. Six years after leaving Kenya, Karani was recruited into the US Navy.
“I wanted to travel, experience different things, and serve the country, so I decided to join the military. [The military] gives you so much, and you’re giving back by serving the country. You can’t beat that,” she said.
After six years in service, Karani became the second woman in the 41-year-old competition to win the Armed Forces Chef of the Year. She landed the coveted accolade by using a curious set of ingredients. Her other accolades include being named the Joint Staff Sailor of the Year, Enlisted Aide of the Year, all in 2016. In 2017 she scooped two awards: Enlisted Aide of the Year and Joint Exercise Grand Prix winner (competing against Royal Armed Forces). Karani is also an executive chef to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul J. Selva.
Karani recently competed in Season 32, Episode 13, Jump for Bok Choy, which aired on the Food Network Channel – and she won “I was praying the entire time. I said, ‘Frida, you’d better not get chopped first,’” she remembered of the experience.
It seems that losing is not a word that is in the vocabulary of this driven young Kenyan.