Sofia S'Mouni: A touch of tenderness, a hint of craziness and a good dose of determniation
“Bien manger c’est le début du Bonheur” (eating well is where happiness begins) is a slogan from a French TV advert. Sofia S’Mouni has made it her motto.
This young chef, who is 33 years old, married and the mother of an adorable 11 year old daughter, bubbles with energy and has a real passion for the art of gastronomy.
A touch of tenderness, a hint of craziness and a good dose of determination; that’s how Sofia S’Mouni defines herself.
She has a symbiotic relationship with Côte d’Ivoire. “I was born in Morocco, but it’s as if I was born in Côte d’Ivoire because I’ve lived there for the last four years”, she says. A lasting love story with this West African country that she justifies by these three key assets that she encounters on a daily basis. “Firstly, the warmth of this country, because Ivorians are welcoming, helpful, happy and understanding. Secondly, its beauty, with its striking scenery and rich culture. And thirdly, its gastronomy, which mirrors the country: beautiful, colourful and diversified”.
As a child, Sofia saw herself as something of a tomboy. “But, at the same time, that didn’t stop me helping my mum with the household chores”, she adds. Her love of gastronomy comes from her mother, who she helped with the cooking when she was still very little. “I like to convey love through my cooking. Providing a tasty dish is providing a bit of happiness”.
Her somewhat atypical career could have been a handicap, but instead of losing heart she made it a strength. She stopped her education when she was very young (at Year 10 level). She then had a number of jobs: store manager in the Adjamé district, handbag saleswoman in Treichville, data entry employee and, lastly, personal assistant. Following a personal evaluation, she threw herself into entrepreneurship. “Although I did take some time out to perfect my cooking and graduated top of my class at the Grand Bassam seaside resort’s catering college, majoring in cookery”, she adds proudly.
For the last 6 years, Sofia has been supplying appetizer services, and over the last year has been providing a comprehensive service with her “So Délices” culinary startup. She says that her cooking style combines innovation and traditionalism, but also a mixture of French, Moroccan and Ivorian cooking. Indeed, don’t be surprised to see bush meat tagine or spit-roasted agouti on the “So Chef” menu!
As with any career – whether formal or entrepreneurial – there is a starting point. Sofia is always eager to talk about one of the orders that launched her and gave her the confidence she needed to pursue this culinary journey: “it was when I was still a beginner and the Conceptuel Événementiel agency sent me an order. They liked my work, and that gave me a shot in the arm”. She had another wonderful experience when she’d just graduated from the Bassam catering college and spent 10 days working for Bouaké town hall as a personal chef. “It was a real challenge. My greatest reward was when the Mayor congratulated me personally for my work and told me he and his guests were pleased with the food”.
Although her parents are supporting her in this new adventure, this wasn’t always the case. “It was hard for them to see their daughter abandon the guarantee of a fixed income to throw herself into entrepreneurship. But they’ve gradually got used to and accepted this, and I even have their blessing”.
This family support has been paramount to helping Sofia overcome the sometimes less joyous moments that a culinary entrepreneur and chef encounters. Indeed, she remembers one of the worst experiences of her young career: “One time, I arrived at a wedding, they took the appetizers and served them to all the guests, but nobody came out to pay me… I waited outside for over an hour… I didn’t want to go inside and get paid in front of the guests; it just isn’t done.
When I was finally paid, I couldn’t get out of the neighbourhood because the guests had blocked the road with all their vehicles. I cried, although now I can laugh about it”. In such moments she can always count on the support of her friends and loyal fans: “They give me a lot of support – sometimes maybe too much (laughs), but it puts pressure on me and I don’t want to disappoint them”.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Sofia has taken part in a number of cookery competitions including the “Défi Gourmand Dinor”, a television show in which she was a finalist. “It was a wonderful experience. That’s when I decided to get training to become better in my field”. A pleasant and pivotal memory, but one that pales into insignificance compared to the feedback she gets from her clients: “It’s a pure joy to know that the clients really enjoyed their food”.
Amongst the role models and icons who have inspired her, Sofia immediately starts by mentioning her mother, who she says is her main role model: “she taught me to appreciate a job well-done. And more importantly to never cheat”. She also mentions Chefs Christelle Vougoh Anet (Côte d’Ivoire) and Dieuveil Malonga (Congo-Brazzaville), not forgetting Philippe Etchebest and Gordon Ramsey. “I like their careers and work. I love their culinary style”, she says with passion.
Whilst Sofia enjoys talking about her continental and international references, she is already looking to the future, in other words the next 10 years. Indeed, she wants to own a restaurant in Côte d’Ivoire and another one in Morocco (her two countries), and also set up a coworking area for young cooks who may not have the equipment or resources to train.
What advice does she have for young Africans who want to get into the catering and culinary entrepreneurship sector? She warns that “it isn’t easy. To be an entrepreneur you need to be passionate, but also properly trained. It takes a lot of courage and seriousness. If they’re only doing it for the money then forget it, because there are times when you don’t make any profit at all just to stay in business”. But, she says with empathy: “if it’s in my field then feel free to get in touch – if I’m able to help you, I will!”
“Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”. [Mother Teresa]