In their most recent trip to Victoria Falls and surrounding areas, the Travel Essence team enjoyed a heart-warming opportunity to meet with the resort town’s small business community, connecting with them over the evolution of Zimbabwe’s most prolific tourist town in a post-COVID era. With brilliantly blue skies and lush greenery as the backdrop, they were whisked away by Clive Wakefield, who had been so gracious to host Travel Essence on a “Paint & Sip” experience the day before, to what he had earlier described as an exceptional dining experience with people at the heart of its operations.
It was upon arrival that the team met Sarah Lilford, Owner of the Dusty Road Township Experience, who would treat them to a delightful, authentically Zimbabwean dining experience. The conversation went a little something like this…
1. Sarah Lilford: tell us a little about yourself, your journey growing up, and to whom you credit your milestones.
I grew up on a commercial farm in a place called Guruve, Zimbabwe, which was very much where my love of local produce, rural living, cooking, and people became my passion. I went to school at Umvukwes School, Bishopslea, and then onto Arundel. I was strongly guided toward having a practical future, not an academic one! Getting fired from my first secretarial job made me think I’d better find another skill! So, I went to England and completed a cookery course. I traveled the world using my newly-acquired cooking skills.
Returning home, I set up and ran my own catering company, where we specialized in one-off customized menus and over the years catering for a wide variety of private gatherings and corporate events. Seeking change and looking to expand my brand, I later moved to the more internationally renowned tourist spot, Victoria Falls. This is where I set up Dusty Road Township Experience in 2019.
Naturally, we had to close during the pandemic. We eventually re-opened in March 2022 and are now are at a very exciting stage, having survived the impact of COVID-19 on the travel and tourism industry, which inadvertently feeds into our business. I feel strongly that 2023 is going to be a busy year re-connecting with everyone and working flat out!
As for milestones; this question often challenges me to pause and reflect quite a bit. Having come out of the pandemic, and reflecting on all we have been through over the years, I believe l do need to take ownership in crediting my milestones. It’s been relentless, hard work and I rarely acknowledge my various achievements, and the resilience to survive and determination to never give up. So today I will! Thank you! I will also add that I acknowledge having had the most wonderful grounding, some helpful and sound advice within all aspects of the business, creative assistance from time to time, and generous lenders and donors as well as so many friendly supporters along this dusty road.
2. As the curator of the authentic Dusty Road Township Experience, a Zimbabwean dining experience, take our readers through what makes what you have created so compelling?
The Dusty Road style is cheerful, earthy, soulful and funky with a true purpose at its core. The welfare of women and children, female empowerment and the awareness of Zimbabwean food and culture is of huge importance to us. We are in the heart of Chinotimba, the oldest community in Vic Falls. Most of our visitors stay in the plush hotels and lodges where the majority of those who live here, work – the wheels of our Tourism Industry. We are able to offer our guests the contrast in life which is so important for balance and perspective.
Our aim is to improve the livelihoods of the families in this town through exposure to our visitors and the transcendental gift of human interaction, pausing over a delicious meal to properly savour the experience. Our ingredients come from small-scale famers, the local market, the Zambezi River and the abundant bush. We cook over an open fire, giving it a unique smoky flavour. We work with nutrient-dense indigenous foods. Some you’ll never have tasted before, such as baobab powder, mopane worms, munyii berries, zumbani, and mongongo nuts. However you can also savour more conservative dishes. Our style of food is simple and hearty and we pride ourselves on not being a fine dining restaurant!
3. How did your penchant for cooking, and now curating the Dusty Road experience for visitors to Victoria Falls begin? What influences has your international exposure contributed to food service at Dusty Road today?
Our home on the farm was always full of people, events being organised and the kitchen was always naturally busy – so food and entertainment are second nature to me. I’m passionate about markets and local food– the colours, the flavours the people and produce. There is nowhere in Victoria Falls that offers Zim cuisine in such a creative and authentic environment where you can learn about the ingredients that are on the menu and be able to see how our locals live in our 1930’s home.
From my travels around the world and international exposure I’ve learnt a high standard of service, cooking skills, timing and what our visitors want. I’m thus able to teach my staff this and ensure a balanced blend that fills this niche experience, delivering so much more for the visitor to take away with them outside the norms of just a safari albeit vising the unique Victoria Falls.
4. One will notice a strong upcycling ethos at Dusty Road. Take us through the creative process with the space – from chairs to décor and food presentation. Where do you find the elements that have brought Dusty Road to life?
Upcycling is very much part of the community. Our locals generally don’t have excess money to buy new things so they are ingenious with their creations and I’ve exaggerated this in a stylish way in our home. We have bath tubs turned into chairs, tin baths made into tables, tin cups into chandeliers. Our drinking glasses are recycled from different bottles turning them into wine goblets, shot glasses or beer tumbler. Our plants are grown in old tea pots, olive oil tins and cooking pots. We use old doors and electricity cable reels as tables and our wall paper are flour sacks. Every piece has story. All of it found along my Dusty Road and as you revel in the charming set-up, you get to savour creative dishes in an atmosphere vibrating with fun and sheer enjoyment.
5. What about your journey has inspired your series of books and where can readers find them?
I created both books not only for their recipes and food but to show or remind our readers of the richness of Zimbabwe, its creatures, artefacts, culture, local produce and people blending in the lifestyles on the farms – commercial and subsistence, the vibrancy of the African bush and the indigenous foods that comes from it. But most of all the rustic, real, happy, earthy and soulful feeling of living in a place so many of us call home is what it’s about for me. My first book “Dusty Road – A taste of farm life and living in Zimbabwe” is out of print but I look forward to re-doing that when time permits. During covid I was unable to get people to the restaurant so by writing the next book “Dusty Road – Township Tastes – Mealie Meal, Masau and Managing Life in Zimbabwe,” I was able to get the restaurant to the people and for them to experience and learn about our project and the passion for my brand.
Books are available at Dusty Road and also available across Zimbabwe or online at www.dustyroad.africa or the E- book on Amazon.
6. You are a mom of two teens, and doing life in Zimbabwe’s most prolific town of Victoria Falls. How do you balance your role as an restauranteur and entrepreneur with motherhood? Take us through how you overcome the challenges of tackling both?
I don’t think I’ve got the balance right! My children Jack (17) and Andie (16) have always been at boarding school so between that and the incredibly supportive community both staff, friends and family who have helped me when needed, I’ve been able to grow my brand and at the same time provide for my kids. They have always known that what I do provides for their education, fun holidays (we are so lucky in Zimbabwe with variety on our doorstep) and a balanced lifestyle; hopefully also a good work ethic for their own lives down the road. We, like many, have hit a few pot holes on the way and had some incredibly stressful times and life changing events in the last couple of years and I also under estimated how difficult teenage years could be….and with Covid thrown in! However, it is all part of our journey, and comes with parenting, and I look forward to finding a better balance as we get into our stride in 2023 as I think we will.
7. Community. What does this term mean to you and how has, it played out in your entrepreneurial journey?
Zimbabwe is one big community. From the farms to the city, urban and rural areas. Every single one of them has been there to support, encourage and inspire me in what I have done and created. In the Chinotimba community in Victoria falls everyone knows me as “Mama Sarah”, be it the lady we buy our tomatoes from, the neighbour our wood is supplied by, the upholsterer who covers our chairs, the taxi drivers who drop off our guests, the ladies who sew for us or the staff who make the restaurant work. All are part of a colourful, cheerful, hardworking community. The bonds of a community are what gets us through the tough times and it is from within communities that live real lives that my family and I learn so much from. Giving back to the community is becoming much more a focus for me as we evolve and re-engage with the international community visiting us here.
8. What does Sarah enjoy doing during her quieter moments?
I hope to have convinced your readers that running a restaurant is a hugely demanding enterprise however there are quieter moments and I cherish these. I spend them at home resting and listening to podcasts, having a cup of coffee with friends, or going on a drive into the bush to recharge and rebalance.
9. Three recent reads and your biggest takeaway from them?
Though I am not a great reader, I do enjoy podcasts, short inspirational books, and paging through cookbooks and magazines. Below are some of my favorite quotes from these:
1) La Concinera de Castamar – Fernando J. Munez
“Time stands still to let you savour every dish. Savour has two meanings: when you savour things you can taste them or you can enjoy them. To cook, to share, to give, to decipher recipes, and transform them until you find what is important.
The essential ingredient unique for each dish and for each and every one of us …that something that makes us special; the thing that we need to find out who we are… and what we will become.”
2) Ask and it is Given – Esther Hicks
“Feel appreciation for what is, and eagerness for what is coming”
3) Nigella Lawson – English food writer and television cook
“I think we all live in a world that is so fast-paced. It’s threatening and absolutely saturated with change and novelty and insecurity. Therefore, the ritual of cooking and feeding my family and friends, whoever drops in, is what makes me feel that I’m in a universe that is contained”
10. What advice do you have, especially for women looking to venture into entrepreneurship, on how best to balance wearing multiple hats?
Life is all about balance – we never seem to get that right at the best of times let alone when massive impacts like covid are thrown into the mix. However, some simple things working as an entrepreneur which might help: work with what you have got; things always take longer than you anticipate so keep some reserve in the tank whether that is funding or energy and ingenuity. It is going to be tough and will require resilience no matter what you intend or how rosy the upside is going to look – it is a slog so be prepared for it – rather like a marathon for which you do some training, know it is going to be tough especially in some parts, pushing through to the finish line enjoying the whole experience. We spend a lot of time working the process way before we get anywhere near the finished product – be it a book or a restaurant – and so enjoying that process is most important. Keep a sense of humor and be prepared to always go the extra mile and that will help you plug away at what, luckily for me, is my passion.