This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of TASTE Magazine.
The San Pellegrino Young Chef finals took place in Milan on 11 and 12 May. Out of 21 young chefs, Vusi placed in the top 7.
Follow Vusi on Instagram: @v4vusi
I’m currently spending all my free time practising for the San Pellegrino Young Chef Awards, happening in Milan in May. At the moment it’s just about refining my dish, isicupho (see opposite). It means “trap”, and symbolises the moment after you trap a bird to eat it. It’s comprised of duck that I marinate in a home-made sorghum beer overnight, before hanging it for about four weeks. I cook it on the crown and serve it with biltong that I make from the smoked duck legs, fermented pumpkin and grains. I’m trying to get the sauces just right at the moment. One of them is made with pumpkin kombucha …
I really got into fermentation when I did a stage at In de Wulf in Belgium in 2016. Fermentation was the foundation of all the dishes. I remember being told to make sour cream shortly after arriving and asking where the lemons were. They laughed, because they left the cream in a warm spot for seven days until it soured naturally. The chefs were from all over the world and some of the most degenerate people I’ve met in my life, but they were so good. I thought I knew my stuff and then I met these people. It was a really special time for me. Unfortunately, the restaurant has since closed.
The San Pellegrino Young Chef semi-final held in Dubai last November was fun, but stressful. I took all my own ingredients because I didn’t trust anyone to source them for me, so I ended up having to pay $500 excess for my baggage when I arrived. There were three cooler boxes, all of my saucepans and one suitcase. For just three days! And I kept worrying that something would happen to my ducks. The hotel felt miles away as the taxi sped away from the airport.
On the night of the gala dinner, I had, like, one percent battery life on my phone. It felt like the ceremony was taking forever with all the sponsors making speeches. Chef Candice Philip, who is a good friend from my days at The Saxon’s Five Hundred restaurant, kept messaging me, asking me what was going on, and I kept telling her, “I don’t know! Leave me alone!” The next thing, I was on stage. I knew I’d won when they couldn’t pronounce my name.
I decided to become a chef in my matric year. I did quite well at school, so the plan was to study engineering, but during an open day I just became so depressed by the prospect that I decided to try in-house training at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria instead. I was at the egg station. I’ll never forget the time when there was a huge delegation from the ANC at the hotel and one of them ordered a Spanish omelette. I had no idea what it was.
I tried chef’s school for a while at the International Hotel School in Joburg after my time at the Sheraton, but quit after three months. I found it boring and far preferred the hands-on experience you got in restaurants. I ended up moving to Cape Town to work at Greenhouse
in Constantia with Peter Tempelhoff. I credit him for teaching me how to cook properly. For such a big man, he was surprisingly delicate in his approach
to food, which I loved. It was definitely an eye-opening experience; especially to see how the Cape Town restaurant scene differed from Joburg’s.
I went back to Joburg when an opening for a chef de partie became available at Qunu at the Saxon, then joined David Higgs when he opened the erstwhile Five Hundred Restaurant there. He was quite a big mentor for me. I’d first met him when I was on the South African national junior culinary team, back in my Sheraton days. He gave me the chance to put dishes on the menu at a really young age, which was awesome. My first was a chicken dish with granola made from chicken skin, nuts and berries, carrot mayonnaise and this crazy chicken sauce.
My mother isn’t the best cook, but she did come up with some crazy- good breakfasts. She made a baked bean and tomato pilchard dish with eggs, which looked weird but tasted great. When my siblings and I were little, we used to have set days for certain dishes. Wednesdays we always had green beans, which to me was the worst thing ever. I always pretended I’d have to do homework or that I was too tired to eat. Fridays were cottage pie, though, which I loved, because I got to help my mom make it.