I grew up in Soweto. It was just me, my gran, mom and sister. When it was a good day, we knew, because we would celebrate with food. I’d come back from school on a cold winter’s day and my gran would have made scones. From when I was 13, I was the designated chef at home.
I left home at 16-and-a-half with R800. My mom was a single parent at I joined The Reputation Institute during Thabo Mbeki’s era. Then I was poached by SAA’s CSI department. I started my own consultancy firm while I was there. For the first two years [of running it], I was still working at SAA, so I would get by with three hours’ sleep.
In my early twenties, I fell in love with a guy who had to go to Italy for work. We lived there for two years. When I came back, I used the contacts and relationships I had formed to start my fashion business. I couldn’t find trendy, fun, work clothing, so I started designing cleancut, feminine, elegant clothes so that a girl could walk into the office and still feel good. I would import and design my own stuff and eventually I had three boutiques.
Then, my retail business went south. I had to close my stores. I sold my house and went to LA to research the food industry. I thought, if I’m going to fall over, I’m going to make it fun.
Italians are so obsessed with their food. You can’t tell an Italian that there is anything better than Italian food. But in South Africa, we are so diverse. When I went to LA, I struggled to explain South African food. In 2015, I registered for a Diploma of Culinary Arts at the International Hotel School. It was full time and life got real – I was super broke. I had to get by on R50 in a week – I was that girl from Soweto with R800 all over again. But I’m very grateful for that experience in my life, because it made me more content.
My background in business helped me to find my new calling, to connect brands with audiences. I’m from Soweto, I understand that narrative, I relate to people there. After culinary school, I was called in for screen tests with Tiger Brands, and that’s how the television show The Perfect Ace came about.
I feel like there are still a lot of stories about South African food that need to be told. Like gemmerbier (ginger beer) and scones. If you wake up in the township on Christmas morning, it’s not complete without the smell of ginger beer brewing. And when you see your mom is making scones, you know there are guests coming.
Now I host pop-ups at my space in Maboneng, The Taste Kitchen. The idea was to go back to food memories. When you look at the black community in SA, when there’s a celebration, umqombothi must be there. It’s an acquired taste, so I thought how can I bring this to our generation in a way we will enjoy it? We decided to make a mousse with it, with beautiful biscuit crust, crumble, boozy pineapple infused with rum, and rum syrup. We make it look fancy, but the idea is to celebrate food that is proudly South African; food that is part of our heritage. People love it; we get amazing feedback. We also serve a dish inspired by umleqwa or hardbody chicken. We cook the chicken like my gran used to, but we’ve borrowed from Asian food, too. We mould our dombolo in the same shape as bao. We stuff these with pulled chicken, chakalaka and cabbage. My mom used to serve cabbage with everything – probably for five years straight, every night. We use Chinese cabbage. We also do fish and chips, but our chips are made of pap, moulded and shallow fried.
I’m inspired by Siba Mtongana, she really was the first one to do it for all of us young, black South Africans. I travel a lot, and when I say I’m a chef, they say “Siba!” It’s such a beautiful thing; we are well-represented by her.
I would tell young chefs to stay consistent – success comes from being consistent. Be prepared to work hard, because this is not as easy as it looks. I have never worked this hard for my money before! It is physical labour!
And be true to who you are. Own it, and stick to your narrative.