December 18th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
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Editor's Note: Josh Ruxin is the director of Health Builders, the author of "A Thousand Hills to Heaven" and can frequently be found tweaking recipes and mixing drinks at Heaven Restaurant in Kigali, Rwanda.

After we were married eight years ago, I convinced my wife, Alissa, to leave New York City to move with me to Rwanda.

We both had always wanted to have some impact on health and poverty somewhere on the African continent, and Rwanda was easily our first pick. I had worked in different capacities with the government since the late 1990s, and had been moved by the country's ambition to become the "Singapore of Africa.”

Although reminders of the 1994 genocide were fresh, the country was moving rapidly on its promise to build a new nation. Great public health projects were afoot, and the young president was romancing private investment from all over the world. My wife bravely took the plunge, sight unseen. She expected the worst.

What she saw amazed her: The country was, and is, remarkably clean and safe - well beyond what you would find in other nations on the continent. It was cleaner and safer, day and night, than you’ll find in many parts of New York City. There were no bribes to be paid, construction was happening at a staggering rate and the weather was like Southern California year-round. She set to work with orphans of the genocide, many of whom were in need of scholarships for university education.

There was a flurry of aid programs at the time for agriculture, childhood health, AIDS and education. The deep challenge for the nation was to build a tax base to sustain that growth and improvement after the rescue dollars faded. The country needed jobs and economic growth. It wasn’t enough to help the kids get educated, they needed jobs after getting their diplomas. They also needed temporary jobs to help them finance that education, as there certainly weren’t scholarships for everyone. Where were those?

But, Rwanda had a big tourism hook: the amazing gorillas up on the misty volcanoes made famous by Dian Fossey. Many jobs surrounded those safaris. When the tourists wanted a great meal to fortify them for their hikes, there was nada. Coffee? Hit-or-miss in spite of producing some of the world’s best for export. Alissa saw the future.

She and I love great food. Although she’s no cook (I wear the apron in the relationship - that’s how I captured her heart), she hunts down the best possible food experiences wherever we’re traveling. Rwanda, at that time, was a food lover's wasteland. Standard fare was goat, beef or fish brochettes with fries. Restaurant service was somewhat of an oxymoron - we’d arrive, wait half an hour for a menu, find out that most of the menu was unavailable, then wait as much as two hours to be served a flavorless meal. It was no wonder most Rwandans preferred staying home to eating out. To boot, the very culture of eating - perhaps due to food’s scarcity in lean times - frowned on public consumption. You wouldn’t see people hawking tasty street food as is the norm elsewhere.

Against this backdrop, Alissa decided a world-class restaurant and training facility was the way to go. Sure, she had no experience in construction, or in running a business, but she did have that thing that Americans are known for: wild, joyful confidence.

The first few months after opening Heaven, our restaurant, were rough. We worked into the wee hours and struggled to break even. Figuring out pricing, timing, customer service and even securing a steady supply of ice made for daily trials. Most of our servers had never set foot in a restaurant, and certainly none had ever worked in a great one.

When customers were seated, the staff’s instinct was to fade into the shadows and wait to be called on rather than to proactively engage. Even smiling did not come naturally and most adopted solemn dispositions. Those behaviors didn’t exactly move our mojitos.

Little by little, the staff started to get the hang of it. Word of our guacamole spread through the city, and the team’s growing sparkle earned loyal customers.

The kitchen was one of the toughest challenges. The cooks wanted to cook up “Belgian”-style food, like boiled potatoes, that were the lesser artifacts of colonial days. We wanted fusion. That's when Alissa noticed that the dishwasher, Solange, was cooking staff meals in the kitchen. The staff reported that she was indeed the best cook. Promotion granted.

Over the years, Solange has trained under Michelin-starred chefs, one of whom asserts that she makes the best risotto à la minute anywhere. Not bad for a survivor of the genocide who is the first member of her family to go to university and supports a dozen relatives.

That’s what real poverty reduction looks like, and Heaven is serving it up. Actually, Rwanda is serving it up in nicely sized portions, every day of the year.

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Filed under: Africa • Travel

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. MS Embser-Herbert

    Heaven is, well, heaven. Between the food, the ambiance, and the mission, I give it five stars. Looking forward to my next visit!

    January 5, 2014 at 10:42 am |
  2. Jean Claude

    Hi Josh, there is no doubt you are a good writer and good person. However, all your recent writing about Heaven restaurant are addressed to the western audience ( and small rwandan elite who have accesss to cnn and english). Also you make it sound like Heaven rwstaurant is the real heaven for the poor and survivors of the genocide, which is is easy to believe when we read it from this side of the world (NYC)but it is not true. Its surely an amazing restaurant, that other competitors will learn from and help build the private sector and hospitality industry. But we both know that it is not a non-profit, or how much % of your proceedings go to the helpof the poor, scholarships, i am sure very little to none.
    So Heaven is great as a restaurant, just like other innovative restaurant that were started recently: papyrus, lebaneese, zen, chocolat,.. to name few, and that none of these happen to get the priviledge of publicy to cnn, nytimes – but above all, none of these claims to have become the savior of the genocide survivors.
    If there was any project you helped implement in Rwanda that deserves full credit of healing the scars of the genocide, that is "The Access Project", MVP and Health Works. Endless, buitfiful articles can come from these and would be much more appreciated even by the Rwandan audience abd the geneocide survivors themselves ( more than articles on just an elite restaurant in the capital city)

    I truly thank you for the amazing work you have done for the people of Rwanda

    December 24, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  3. steve

    BIZIMANA sounds not so Rwandan !! u full of hatred who hates good over Bad if i may ask you what's other alternative do u have to create more jobs in the country like Rwanda ? that 's a good thing this couple could ever do to lift some pps out of poverty and still make their money !! nothing comes free u know ..

    December 21, 2013 at 5:03 am |
  4. michelleaxtonkelly

    As a sponsor of a young Rwandan girl through Compassion International I am so pleased to hear about Heaven and the wonderful work Josh and Alissa have started in Kigali! Bravo to you and your brave team! Poverty and war so often tell victims that they don't matter, that nothing will change and they are forever locked into a destiny. Thank you for showing them a new opportunity and for introducing the rest of us to a very different look into the county. I so can't wait to meet our girl one day! And I pray more innovative restaurants and businesses are on the way...Blessings and a Merry Christmas to all there!

    December 19, 2013 at 1:46 am |
  5. PlanetSteebbie

    I've eaten at Heaven, Rwanda was a wonderful and heartbreaking experience (no, I didn't go for the gorillas) and Heaven is on par with any fine restuarant you'd find in the US. I'd also recommend Republika restaurant, which is run by a entreprenuring Rwandan woman. Everything the article mentioned about how safe the country was is absolutely true - Edwin, travel there, you will not be disappointed. Bizimana, you're absolutely right ... the rich white foreigners should have stayed home and done nothing. Maybe someone else would have stepped up.

    December 18, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  6. Edwin

    Rwanda definitely has a bad reputation. Glad to hear that my fears were unfounded. Maybe someday I'll travel there.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  7. merrybee

    Bizimana, you knocked the restaurant's poverty reduction model that showed one cook supporting many relatives with her job, but you did not offer a better solution. It sounded like that restaurant also attracted tourist dollars, taught basic skills that transfer into other areas of life...and probably inspired many more ideas. Kudos to the couple!

    December 18, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  8. Bizimana

    The poverty reduction model for Rwanda is for white foreigners to come into the capital city of the country and hire them as serving staff? Teaching these poor uneducated black folk all the skills to serve food properly for affluent white tourists isn't exactly a model for development or alleviating poverty.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Mama Cow

      Unemployment is an enormous problem in Rwanda!! What would you suggest instead of teaching these skills and offering fair wages? And aiding in the support of others? Btw, I happen to know that they gave free space for the first AA meetings in Kigali. Before you sound and act so judmental, perhaps you should have more facts....

      December 19, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  9. Terry

    Good for them.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
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