November 29 marked Paul Murry’s 30th anniversary in Africa’s hospitality industry. He spoke about his experiences so far and how they differ in the different countries he has worked.
What was your initial experience while adopting the African cuisine?
I love new experiences. In South Africa, I didn’t really see much of the African deep cultures of food. But, suddenly, in DRC, you have mapami worms, grilled grasshoppers; and very crunchy if the oil is nice. You also have Nigerian dishes made specially for local people. And this is very exciting because everything is new and different. You meet these new things the people enjoy.
Nigeria is the only pepper country I have seen in Africa. There are different varieties of pepper-soup. Other countries are more into the salt, but in Nigeria they like pepper. This is new but also good. The average Nigerian person has a very good appetite; and they eat very good food. If the food is done correctly, they are not difficult people to please. Africa is wonderful, in the sense that I think it is the last of continents that don’t have pretence. The African people are true wonderful people who want to keep their culture. I hope they sincerely continue the way they are going because it is truly wonderful. They are moving in one direction.
DRC, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Nigeria are countries with different temperaments, cultures and lifestyles; how have you maneuvered all these? Have you found some interference or interruption at the different locations you have had to work, or with different staff?
I joined DRC 18 months after the war, so there was still the after effect. It was upsetting to see what had happened to this country through the genocide that went on there.
It’s the same with Sierra Leone. I arrived there one year after the war. But they are happy people, even after going through such a terrible time. They are wonderful people. They moved forward and rebuilt their country the best way they could. They are working hard, and I have great admiration for that. The people who have been involved with these wars come through.
Cultures are different, but one adapts to them by learning how the people of each country are. I am a guest in their country, so I adjust my character and attitude, which will work and intertwine with theirs. It has worked well.
I went to South Sudan, but I wasn’t there long for Sheraton Hotels. I had to get on quick because the war was about to start. In fact, a CID gentleman gave me a lift in his helicopter. There are a lot of exciting stories to tell as well. As I said, the people and the country will never change, no matter what conflicts there are in Africa. It will still continue to be the beautiful continent it is. It will always be. And like some of the things in wars, which happen in the Middle East, they stay like that for the next 20 to 30 years. That doesn’t happen in Africa.
What was it like dealing with some of the guests who had gone through traumatic experiences and were trying to start over?
I worked with Winnie Mandela in 1994, right after the elections with the repatriation of exiles. They were to get 12 planes that would come and fly in about 3 o’clock in the morning.
At that time, I was running three hotels and we could accommodate four of them in a room. This was a time of history when you see the exiles returning back to South Africa, wearing nothing but a t-shirt and a pair of trousers, nothing else, and carrying a polythene bag. And that’s his life. That is all he has and some of them are in their sixties and they have to go back home.
They were scared, so we welcomed them into the hotel at 3 o’clock in the morning. At that time of the morning, we would give them a huge buffet. We would have half a cow on the buffet, vegetables and potatoes and all the other salads and desserts. And they their eyes would ‘pop’ out of their heads. They would hold me and cry on my shoulders. These were very emotional times.
One does not think of the atrocities that were committed in the wars of Africa. I don’t think of that. I think of the immediate recovery when it’s all over and joining their families. Actually, it was part of assisting and helping them to join their families because we were in between. It was truly wonderful and seeing babies and children who were born while they were in exile is really emotional. So, waving and saying goodbye that they were going back to their village where they would meet the rest of their relatives were amazing and phenomenal. It was a glorious part to be a part of that.
You talked about working a 14-hour shift, which came from your father. Tell me a bit about that.
My father was a very hardworking man, a very successful entrepreneur. He had four hotels, restaurants, flying school and other businesses. I went to boarding school because it was a bit more convenient when he was working. When I started living in one of the hotels – The Bristol – it was a coincidence. I got involved with the business and started to enjoy it. But hotel business is demanding.
As my family live abroad, I have the ability and opportunity to spend more time as a general manager. As a general manager, he has a family at home. He needs to go home at six o‘clock. But that is not the case for me. Here we go back to the old school which needs to be done; which is the greeting and meeting of guests. Also, your staff seeing the general manager on the floor, walking around to make sure, as a team, everything is in place. That is very important in Nigeria, working as a team and a family.
How do you manage your personal relationship with your staff, clients and suppliers?
They are very important. The African continent is not one country, which many people think it is when they haven’t been to Africa. Africa is the Europe of Africa. Every country and culture is different. So, one adapts a little bit in my management style.
I have people who, when I first got here two years ago, were waiters. House cleaners were here. Some waiters are now supervisors, assistant restaurant managers and even restaurant managers. Just in a space of two years. There are assistant managers who are now supervisors of the hotel under different chefs. I am very proud of being able to assist these people to learn and better their lives. Some have gotten married, have children and roofs over their heads. They are all my protégées and I am very proud of them. I see them each day when we are walking around the hotel and there is a bond of trust and dedication, which is wonderful, especially in this hotel. It is like everything has come together.
Of all the aspects of the hospitality business, why would you mostly focus on food and beverages?
There are two directions to go into hospitality management. We have front office and rooms or food and beverage. Food and beverage take a longer course than front office because of the more things involved. Things such as banqueting, room service, dining rooms, breakfast, lunch, dinner and weddings.
There is a lot more work involved in going to that direction to becoming a general manger. It is easy to go for front office. I made that decision from the basic because of my passion for food. I love food of different countries. That is the direction I went. It wasn’t difficult for me to make this decision. I just went where God wanted me to go.
It took me a lot longer to become a general manager, but I have more knowledge now. I can talk to my chef and know what I’m talking about. In the front office, to talk to a chef is harder. I can talk to my banqueting and restaurant managers. I am glad I went that route.
As you move from country to country, hotel to hotel, how easy or difficult has it been?
There has not been any problem at all. I have been to 196 countries in all, including the 54 in Africa. So I have seen the world. When I move on, or I am asked to move on, it is the hotel and people that matter, not where I go. That is what gives me joy. What is on the other side of the world is what I have seen. I know all about it. It is what I can do for the hotel and the people that gives me the reason to move from one hotel to another. Wherever it is, whether in Alaska, the Sahara, Russia, Australia, Jamaica or Africa, I don’t mind. I am not going to leave Africa, not anymore. I have tried and it didn’t work. The people are really beautiful.