Thanda Island looks like a dream. An hour off the coast of Mafia Island in the Zanzibar archipelago, lies this perfect escape. It’s one of the world’s most exclusive island getaways that’s situated in its own marine reserve, with 9 bedrooms in total spread over the five-bedroomed villa and the two two-bedroomed Bandas. The island is booked out exclusively by one group and their needs tended by a team of staff which include butlers, a hostess, housekeepers, barman, and, of course, chefs. We chatted to the South African-born Executive Chef Melissa McDonald about what it’s like to work in one of the most incredible locations in the world:
I have been with Thanda Island for a year and a half now, and getting the job was pure luck! I had been asked by very good family friends to do a catering job for their friends’ daughter’s christening – and it turned out to be the MD of Thanda Safari and Thanda Island. It was such a fun experience, and a couple of days later I got a message from the MD of Thanda asking if I’d be interested in trying out for the chef position. I remember looking at the Thanda Island website, being amazed at the beauty and just so grateful that they gave me the chance.
On working in such a beautiful place:
When I first arrived on Thanda Island it was just surreal; I don’t think you ever really get used to beautiful turquoise waters and the beauty of a sunset with dhows floating slowly past. No matter how your day is turning out, you just put on a pair of flippers and some goggles, and in two minutes you are in a completely different world. I am lucky to work with a young, vibrant and awesome team, which have a ‘nothing is impossible’ attitude. We have all become like a little family – very close. Thanda Island really is one of the most beautiful places I have been lucky enough to visit and to work here is just incredible. We are very blessed.
We are such a small team that your specific job description is not where your work stops – which is the best part. Every member of the team gets involved in several aspects of the island, which include exploring new dive spots around our reserve, and going on trips to Zanzibar to purchase trinkets and spices. We also work with an NGO called Sea Sense where we learn about turtles, dugongs, marine life and log nesting sites. We also have desalination and solar plants on the island. Thanda Island, as a whole, is reliant on so many intricate systems to make it work, so you are constantly learning.
On how Thanda Island differs from her past work experience:
I’ve worked in two different Safari Camps in Botswana, which were also quite isolated and at times hard to get particular produce for, but the ingredients were vastly different. At Thanda Island, we get the most beautiful fresh seafood and gorgeous tropical island fruits with an abundance of coconuts, whereas in Botswana seafood and tropical fruit were very scarce; game meat, very tasty Botswana beef, lamb and pork dictated the menu. It was easier to get certain items, such as berries, in Botswana, and particular brand items in Maun, because we were just across the border from South Africa. However, every place you work has its own flavour and flair, and you make the best of what you have to work with.
My kitchen team of four have all grown up on Mafia Island, which has been an immense help; they know all the suppliers on Mafia Island personally so they make sure we get the freshest fish, fruit and vegetables available. We work from a very substantial base menu and base the week’s menu on what is freshest and available at the time. From our supplier in Kenya, we get everything from truffles and Buffalo Mozzarella to full legs of prosciutto straight from Italy that we keep as a staple in our cold room. We have our own pizza oven at the Al Fresco and Oscar’s Lobster Pasta is a must-try when you visit. The biggest challenge is definitely sourcing produce from the island and not being able to hand pick yourself – sometimes you get a little surprise when your delivery comes and you get 2kg of dried apricots instead of fresh! 99% of all our fresh fish and tropical fruit come straight from Mafia Island, which is an hour boat ride away from Shungimbili Island. We have an amazing supplier in Iringa, which supplies most of our micro herbs, salads and vegetables. Speciality items and our meat all come from suppliers in Dar es Salaam. The traffic in Dar es Salaam is very unpredictable and another challenge, as our supplies sometimes get stuck in traffic and miss the flight but we always have a Plan B.
I think what makes the cuisine special at Thanda Island is the diversity of the team and the fusion of our different culinary backgrounds all coming together to create a diverse menu. My chefs from Mafia Island are masters at cooking authentic Swahili cuisine, which is bursting with beautiful spices and flavour. They make fresh coconut milk by hand and fresh ginger, lime and cardamom infused fruit juices – the best I have ever tasted. Our General Manager, Oscar, is also a passionate chef who had his own restaurant in Kenya, so he adds huge value to the menu. The whole kitchen team have become adopted Italians and fresh pasta is a Thanda Island speciality. I love Eastern flavours, especially Japanese and Thai, and with the abundance of beautiful fresh fish we make a lot of fresh sushi, sashimi, ceviche and fish tartare which suits the warm climate well. Fresh seafood salads dominate the lunch menu, and I often pair the seafood with fruit such as a mango and avocado prawn salad, or a sweet melon and calamari salad. For dinners, grilled and baked fresh painted lobsters and tiger prawns, crab thermidor and an array of pan-fried fish dishes, pizza and Swahili island grills are all on offer. No matter what dietary requirements our guests have, we always create beautiful signature menus for them to enjoy during their time on Thanda Island.
For more information, visit the Thanda Island website.