Photography courtesy of Maria Font Trabocchi.
The Trabocchi were, until recently, one of DC’s most powerful restaurant couples. Maria was the elegant hostess who cultivated an impressive VIP clientele in the culinary hotspots Fiola and Del Mar. Her husband, Fabio, was the Michelin-starred chef. Then, in 2019, they divorced. Although she remains a partner in restaurants and says she and her ex still have a “great relationship,” she is no longer a ubiquitous presence in their dining rooms in Washington. Instead, Trabocchi spent a lot of time in an unexpected place: Somalia.
Trabocchi was approached in February 2019 by Bancroft Global Development, a Washington-based NGO and private military contractor who describes himself as “managing complex projects in conflict zones”. Bancroft trains Somali troops fighting the extremist group al Shabaab, supports peacekeeping missions and provides medical care. It operates from a huge, highly secure base in Mogadishu that regularly hosts diplomats, journalists and other international travelers. Trabocchi, Bancroft suggested, could help them improve the food.
“They were clearly impressed with the way we do our business and the way we treat our employees, and I think they liked my personality in terms of how I deal with any VIP and client,” said Trabocchi. “I could easily adapt to all the circumstances or the different types of personalities that we might find in Africa. “
A lot of restaurateurs are getting into international projects, but this was a very different proposition than some new high-end restaurants in Shanghai or Prague, for example. Trabocchi would be parachuted into a place plagued by kidnappings, civil unrest and famine. And she was reluctant at first. “I’m like ‘No, there’s no way,'” she said. “I like luxury. But she decided to visit Somalia anyway, just to see for herself. On the base, she found out that people were eating food that she found unhealthy and tasteless. In addition, she was drawn to the idea of an adventure. She therefore signed on to open two bars and two cafeteria-style restaurants.
Since then, Trabocchi has made almost monthly trips to Mogadishu, where she stays in a converted shipping container with wi-fi and air conditioning. She has orchestrated new menus that feature handmade pasta, wood-fired pizzas, burgers and local lobster. There’s the “Mexican Night” and the weekend brunch with Bloody Marys. “We have a great selection of cocktails,” Trabocchi says, as if referring to a restaurant on trendy DC waterfront. Trabocchi’s team also provide enhanced MREs – think sous vide steaks – for deployments, as well as dog food for explosives sniffer dogs.
Trabocchi has made a habit of posting photos of his Somali expeditions to Instagram, nestled between images of sunsets from Mallorca and selfies back from Obama. In one photo, she poses holding a pistol, draped in a shoulder strap, alongside the hashtags #badass and #dontmesswithme. (Learning to use a gun was part of the gig.) “Now they call me Lara Croft,” she says. “It’s dangerous, but, you know, it makes it even more fun.”
To help with openings, Trabocchi brought at least five chefs and managers to Mogadishu who had been made redundant from its DC restaurants at the start of the pandemic. She also helped set up a culinary school to train people from Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. The school is the only real place she has spent time with the locals, except for occasional interactions with Somali politicians. “You can never get me away from this,” she said.
Trabocchi explains that the biggest difference from opening restaurants in Washington, besides armed bodyguards, is the difficulty in obtaining ingredients, which must be shipped mainly from Europe. In Washington, she’s used to making a phone call and having whatever she wants the next day. In Somalia, a delivery of chicken or meal must be planned at least three months in advance. Trabocchi now knows more than she ever wanted on the sea routes. (One of his beer deliveries was blocked by the ship stuck in the Suez Canal.)
Improving the quality of MREs and mess rooms is one thing, but even more surprising is Trabocchi’s next move to the grassroots: a full-service gourmet restaurant. “I think it’s a good challenge,” she said. “We have a beautiful room with hand painted frescoes. Why stop at something when you can do more and offer more variety? She describes it as “another improvement” for the camp, as well as an enhanced training opportunity for cooking students. The native Spaniard once boasted on Instagram that she was the first person to bring a leg of premium Cinco Jotas Iberian ham to Somalia.
This is quite a stark contrast to the way most people live in a country where an estimated 3.2 million people are food insecure and 275,000 children are severely malnourished. Trabocchi doesn’t feed hungry locals, but according to her, she still benefits Somalis by helping aid workers.
Lately, Trabocchi has focused less on her projects in Somalia, turning to her other job as a hospitality consultant for Hard Rock Hotels. It’s just released from a Hard Rock opening in Madrid, and new outposts are arriving in Budapest and New York. The job is familiar: choosing staff uniforms, managing cocktail menus and, his specialty, supervising VIP lists. But, she jokes, “I don’t have to wear a bulletproof vest in the kitchen.”