Chef Victor Bongo. Photo: bongowines.com

Small-town B.C. cafe boasts one of Canada’s top chefs

Chef Victor Bongo is cooking up a storm at Village Grounds Cafe & Bistro in Naramata.

Slightly hidden along the main street of downtown Naramata you will discover a great patio, a unique coffee shop and an award-winning Canadian chef creating surprising meals in his humble new kitchen.

Chef Victor Bongo has worked on cruise ships, at five-star restaurants, toured the world, showcased his recipes on TV, and now he has chosen to take over a small kitchen in Naramata to bring people “good, simple food” at a good price.

Considered to be one of the top 10 chefs in Canada, Bongo discovered Naramata when he came up to the region to explore B.C. winemaking.

“Working in Vancouver there were a lot of wine pairing events and winemaker dinners and I wanted to step up my game,” explained Bongo. “The more I studied up on wines, the more I fell in love with it and I came to the Okanagan to meet with winemakers and learn about the wine and then I decided I should have a wine.”

He found a partner in Serendipity Wines who helped him create Bongo Wines.

“When I first came to meet Serendipity it was February and it was still cold. I didn’t want to leave Vancouver, but then I came back in September to finish my wine and that’s when I saw the Okanagan at its best,” said Bongo.

“The sun was out, the grapes were growing, the fruit was everywhere and I just thought ‘Wow, this is gorgeous!’.”

He fell in love with the small town and accepted an offer to be a partner at the Naramata Heritage Inn. He spent about a year there before branching off on his own.

“At the end of last year I was sitting at the Village Grounds having a coffee and I was chatting with the owner when I realized she had a liquor license. I thought, ‘You have a liquor license, and you don’t serve alcohol and you close at 2 p.m.? What?’.,” said Bongo, who suggested he could use her space in the village to do something special.

“I wanted to do something amazing, something amazing for the locals and something good for the tourists. A good location for me to also showcase who I am and to work on my own.”

He was able to work a plan with the owner of Village Grounds. He brought on Chef Edmund Liew-On to man the barbecue, the man who trained him to cook 18 years ago, and long-time friend Steve Sarkany to take over as the restaurant manager.

“I wanted to surround myself with closest people, the people that care about me the most,” said Bongo. “They are like family.”

He officially opened the restaurant portion of the cafe on May 17, 2018.

“It has been amazing. Great support from the locals and now school is over, business has doubled up,” said Bongo.

“I wanted to have a place where I can be close with the customers. I love Naramata and I wanted to open something that was accessible and affordable for everyone.

“When you work for big hotels, you’re working for other people. You have to do what they want, rather than please the customers. Now, it can be all about my customers being happy. I can go out there, talk with them, sit down with them, even have a glass of wine with them quickly sometimes. That, to me, is everything.”

He says the smaller venue allows him to connect with customers as if he were feeding them in his own home.

“I get to hear the feedback, right to my face. That feedback keeps me going, it keeps me passionate and its the reason I work 12-14 hours a day as I know the customers appreciate it.”

Chef Victor Bongo’s famous African Peanut Soup. Image: Carmen Weld

The restaurant offers a daily variety of dishes including BBQ and pasta, but when you walk in the door, the restaurant manager will likely work hard to convince you to try Bongo’s signature African Peanut Soup.

“The soup is a recipe from grandmother, who passed away. She passed it onto my mother and it was passed on to me. It holds a special history for me,” said Bongo.

“It is a unique soup you don’t often see. You hear about African Peanut Soup, but you don’t know where to find it. If you ask anyone if they’ve had peanut soup before they’ll say ‘oh that’s Chef Bongo from the Congo’s’. I made my name in Vancouver and I was known as the guy with the peanut soup.”

His peanut soup has won awards, been on TV and served in New York City.

“People love it!”

Bongo plans on calling Naramata home for a long time and plans to expand his business in the coming months or years.

For more information on Chef Bongo, click here. To check out Village Grounds Cafe and Bistro, click here.

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A dish served at Village Grounds Cafe in Naramata. Image: Carmen Weld

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