I almost didn’t go to the Elephant Café.
When Kim first suggested it, it didn’t sound like anything I’d want to do. Pet the elephants, then have dinner at the elephant place. It was crazy expensive and sounded like a classic tourist trap. I said we should skip it.
But then, while paging through the latest issue of Zambezi Traveller quarterly over my full English breakfast at the ZigZag Hotel, I ran across an article written by a Livingstone chef called Annabel Hughes. She wrote about using locally grown and foraged ingredients unknown outside Africa, foods with names like masawa, nzembwe, and mongongo nut. The photos of her dishes in the article were beautiful. And she was the chef at the Elephant Café!
Hey Kim, I said – I changed my mind. And so we made a reservation for the four of us for an evening on our return trip to Livingstone. A locavore feast to look forward to!
But then on the afternoon of our reservation I almost cancelled.
The proprietor of our hotel, Lynn, is also a devoted animal lover who runs a busy animal rescue charity in Livingstone.
I told her where we were going for dinner, and she got quiet. Then she said, she didn’t actually know much about the Elephant Café, other than that she had heard it was headed in a new direction. Maybe I would be so kind as to tell her what I thought of it when we got back.
Uh oh. The last thing I want to do is to patronize a business that might abuse or exploit elephants. And I most certainly did not want to ride on an elephant, if that was what they were about. I was ready to cancel. But in the end I decided to go, because at least I would be able to tell Lynn what they were up to over there.
As it turned out, I have only good things to say about the Elephant Café. The herd has been together at this location for many years, and currently numbers ten elephants. Most of the animals were rescued, although a couple of them joined the herd voluntarily over the years (the land is unfenced, and the elephants forage freely in the area and return to their shelter at night – and on a couple of occasions, they brought friends back to stay). It is true that the proprietors were using them for “elephant safaris” for tourists, exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want to support. But since opening the restaurant two months ago they have been rapidly phasing out that aspect of their business. They are honoring reservations already made but booking no new ones. The new business plan is an “elephant experience” combined with gourmet dining. Which I suppose is still in a sense exploitative, but in the modern world there has to be an economic incentive to protect animals with a high black market value.
Elephants are brought in to greet guests before dinner. The owner and handlers tell you some things about the herd and the individuals in it. You get a bag of food to hand out as well. Our party was the first to arrive and they led a few elephants to the lawn just for us.
It was really a little surreal to be interacting with these immense creatures on the pleasant grounds of the restaurant. It was a very relaxed, unhurried encounter.
After the elephant visit we had a little time to explore the grounds. Kim and I had to be warned away from the riverside, as it seems there was a man-eating crocodile in the neighborhood.
The monkeys were fun to watch.
After champagne and appetizers on the lawn, we were seated for dinner on a cool covered deck by the river well out of crocodile snapping range.
Every aspect of the meal was superb. In fact, it is one of the top five meals I’ve had in my life. When you think about the restaurants that cater to expats and tourists in developing countries and the trouble they have with sourcing ingredients, there is definitely a lesson to be learned about studying and experimenting with local ingredients (a good lesson for home cooks like me, too). Of course it would help to be an amazing chef like Annabel.
At the end, Chef Annabel brought out her crew for a well-earned round of applause.