I grew up in Chatsworth in Durban. I come from a massive family. On my dad’s side, there were seven brothers and three sisters, and on my mom’s side, three brothers and two sisters. We come from a religious Hindu background, and whether we gathered for prayers, weddings, birthdays or funerals, there was always food involved.
On Boxing Day and New Year’s we used to go to the beach and would need to rent two buses to fit our whole family. My gran, who organised everything, would get up at 2 am to start cooking – biryani, dhal and Cornish chicken curry – and we’d put up big marquees and kuier for the whole day. Sadly, when she passed on, the tradition came to an end.
I decided to study hotel and catering management because I wanted to travel the world. Our school’s guidance counsellor showed us a video clip about working on the ships and I loved the idea. During my first year of studies we had to assist at a big catering function on a ship – well, more of a catamaran, really – and
I couldn’t stop being sick. I had no sea legs, obviously, but I realised I could still cook and travel. I’d just have to do it on land.
My first restaurant job was at Tropicale – an iconic Durban restaurant in those days. I worked at night and studied during the day. My studies were all about bains-marie and theory; at the restaurant, there were only enormous pots and, because I’d grown up with those, they made me feel right at home.
I was only supposed to stay at Le Quartier Français for six months. I went there in 1996 from The Plettenberg Hotel, not knowing where I was going to stay or how to pronounce Franschhoek, let alone Le Quartier Français. But I fell in love with the place and ended up staying six-and-a-half years.
Back then, the food scene in Franschhoek was very different. It was the time when tasting menus and small portions were starting to come out, and Margot Janse was experimenting with this new approach. It was very different to cooking at The Plettenberg, which at that stage was French fine-dining cuisine.
I always say that my gran taught me how to be a cook and Margot taught me how to be a chef. Margot was strict in that she taught me to do things in a very specific way – how to prep, do stock rotation, order wisely – but down the line I’m glad she enforced those rules. There was a logic to all of it.
Next, I headed up the African Relish Cooking School in Prince Albert. The town is very much out of the way – two hours to the nearest airport! A wild night out meant going to the Karoo Kombuis, run by three eccentric former airline hosts. They had amazing costumes they’d brought back from their travels, and we’d all dress up and unleash our alter egos…
I returned to Le Quartier when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I’d remained close to Margot and when I told her the news, she said, “Hold on, I’m going to phone you back.” Next thing, I got a call offering me the position of kitchen manager and doing cookery classes at the hotel.
I took a sabbatical year to be with my dad during the last stage of his illness. During this time, Analjit Singh, the founder of Leeu Collection, bought Le Quartier. He wanted to open an authentic North Indian restaurant and Margot told him, “You know you have an Indian chef on your payroll, right?” After my father passed away, I returned and he asked me to head up Marigold.
I told Mr Singh, “Sir, you want me to do authentic Indian but I’m a fake Indian!” It’s kind of my running joke. Foodwise, I knew Durban Indian, South Indian and Sri Lankan Indian, but I was out of my depth with North Indian food. He was like, “No problem, my dear”, and two weeks later I was in Delhi with my own cooking tutor, teaching me everything from roasting, grinding and blending spices to cooking authentic dishes like aloo palak.
I think the local restaurant industry is slowly becoming less male dominated. Earlier this year I was one of three female chefs to head the food and wine experience at LittleGig festival outside Cape Town, where all our food was paired with wine made by women winemakers. Many women think they won’t be able to make it in the industry, but look at Chantel Dartnall. Look at Margot. She’s still the chef that inspires me most. She just keeps innovating.