1. Let’s start with an introduction. Tell us who you are and where you grew up. What were some of your earliest childhood food memories?
My name is Ompelege Moreosele and I come from a small village called Kalamare in central Botswana. I’m an international award-winning recipe book author and I’m known as chef Cathy, a name that was given to me after I published my first salad recipe book. I love cooking and indulging in delicious food, with fine-dining being my favourite. I live by the mantra “food is life, therefore it has to be fully enjoyed”. I am a recipe and menu developer and I specialise in the cold kitchen section. I’m also a columnist for The Midweek Sun newspaper, my column is called “Sun Kitchen with Chef Cathy”. I also host a Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board Earth cooking show.
My memories of food are very powerful. My earliest memory dates back to when I was about eight years old. I absolutely adored going to the farm with my grandmother, we used to get up really early in the morning on weekends to harvest vegetables, sorghum and maize. My grandmother would allow me to collect things like peanuts and maize for myself, and she would give me a small pot to cook what I collected using firewood to keep me busy so that I didn’t disturb her while she was busy processing and packaging food she harvested from the farm. She would compliment me with words like “your peanuts taste really good”, and “you grilled your maize very well”. That’s how I developed the love of cooking.
2. How did you get into cooking? Was it always something you wanted to do?
I was raised by my grandmother who known by everyone in Kalamare for her fat cakes, mapakiwa (bread rolls) and serobe (offal). My passion for cooking was influenced by her, and her culinary prowess was passed down to me at a tender age. While growing up, I enjoyed spending time cooking with my grandma. Cooking is not only an art, but an avenue to express your feelings and to communicate emotions. I remember kneading the dough for fat cakes and peeling potatoes for her.
I completed form five in 2010 and, due to a lack of career advice, I ended up doing an associate degree in advertising. I didn’t have the passion for it so I switched to business management. I got a job as a receptionist but I had a sense of my life being incomplete and that I had to start again. I decided I was going to do something that I loved unconditionally, which was cooking. I have not looked back. I told myself that cooking is an essential skill. I saved up to do my certificate in food preparation and cooking with Gaborone College of Culinary Arts and advanced into a diploma in culinary arts at Gaborone Technical College. It was the best decision I have ever made.
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3.You’ve written a book all about salads, can you tell us a little about this? Why did you decide to focus on salads?
The book is more than just a salad recipe book. Life on a Salad is a testament that with the right mix of creativity, persistence and innovative thinking, anything is possible in today’s world. My new book is a glimpse into unique salad recipes that feature local Botswana foods. There are mosutlhane (sorghum grains), letlhodi (lentils), black-eyed bean and samp salads that Batswana are not even aware of. I was celebrating my heritage with these recipes because I love telling the story of where I come from through food. I was also exploring the modern style that I gained from my culinary school.
My recipe book is an indispensable tool for home cooks and a resource for serious cooks or professionals. The recipe book is a series of salads and salad dressing recipes that I collected for the four years of my culinary arts training.
All the recipes have been tried and tested. I prepared some during my exams at school and I experimented with some during in-service training at Marang Cresta Hotel, where I was allowed to explore and bring my creativity into the kitchen.
I decided to focus on salads because I realised that between healthy, fast meals and reinventions from top chefs, salads have come a long way. When it comes to recipes, though, they still seem like an unlikely candidate to seek out. Salads are often viewed as an extra, thoughtless combination of fruits or vegetables that accompany the stars of the plate. With this book I’m revolutionising eating salads in a country renowned for voluminous meat consumption. This is where my recipe book comes in to suggest interesting ways to layer new flavours, pair textures and try out new produce to toss into the salad bowl. The recipes in my book are doable, packed with flavour and the ingredients are accessible. Some salads can be served as a main dish, an accompaniment, or whatever a salad aficionado is trying to explore. I would say that the days of salads’ portrayal as “less than”, feminine and exotic, especially in African culture, will be a thing of the past after users have engaged with my book.
4. What are some of your favourite recipes in the book? Why are these your favourites?
My favourite recipes are those with African touches such as mosutlhane (sorghum grains) letlhodi (lentils) and samp salads that most Batswana are amazed and surprised to see for the first time. I would always recommend my mosutlhane salads, letlhodi and samp salads because I am Motswana and an African woman with such a gorgeous culture. I love telling the story of where I come from through food because I’m a village girl from humble beginnings. My grandmother taught me how to cook traditional foods so I always enjoy exploring and playing around with traditional foods by giving them a modern twist with the knowledge I got from my culinary professional training.
African dishes have always defined black people and their culture. In some of my favourite salad recipes there was a lot of background work that had to take place to bring about an African feel to my salads as I wanted to share great food stories with Batswana.
My special signature recipe is mosutlhane-and-butternut salad. It’s unique and most Batswana like it. Everyone was surprised to see mosutlhane as a salad. I can make this salad over and over again, there’s something about it that excites me.
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5. What is it like being based in Botswana? What’s the food scene like there? What do you love about it? What are some challenges?
Chefs in Botswana have never been rated highly at all, they always came as second best. Recently we have seen some Batswana raising through the ranks to become the executive chefs of large organisations like Masa Square Hotel. In all honesty, the support is minimal. The pay structures of chefs and/or hospitality personnel endorsed by the government is nothing compared to the amount of work involved in being a chef. There are a few Batswana chefs who are doing well overseas though, but on home ground it’s a hustle every day. There’s no recognition whatsoever, especially from the government as the major customer. We have to acknowledge a few Batswana who are making strides in the culinary world.
6. What are some of your favourite ingredients? What are you favourite things to do with them?
Mosutlhane (sorghum grains) in salads and risottos.
Black-eyed beans in soups, snacks, dips and salads.
Seswaa (pounded meat) in stuffed phaphatlha (sandwiches), pies and potatoes.
7. Who are some of your mentors, or other people in the industry you admire?
My mentors are chef Richard Molefe and chef Kayama, my former lecturers who trained, encouraged and guided me because they believed in me and nurtured the spark of food creativity in me. I also admire Siba Mtongana and The Lazy Makoti in South Africa.
8. Have you got anything else planned? What can we look forward to seeing you do next?
I have currently spread my wings and started a company called Food is Life. I supply kitchen equipment, do menu design, recipe development and testing food, cooking classes, instructional workshops, food styling, food magazine production, live cooking demonstrations, functions and corporate catering. I’m also currently working on my next book, which will be published next year, and I’m working on opening a culinary school or a training academy in Botswana.
To keep up with Ompelege, follow her on Instagram.