It’s a steamy summer day in the sub-tropical city of Durban. We’re at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. It’s a picnic lunch for the local American community. We’re here to meet consular staff to hear about the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and to learn about other initiatives and services offered by this branch of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to South Africa. Guests have been asked to bring and share a main dish. Drinks and desserts would be provided, the invite from our host, Consul General Frances Chisholm, said.
The expansive flat outdoor reception area, off the columned porch of the stately two story house with its sizable tiered, shrub-filled garden, is decked with umbrellas. Tables set out in a shaded area are crammed with an enticing selection ranging from sushi, barbecue chicken and small savory quiches and pies to summery salads. The view from the garden is across to the Indian Ocean, shimmering blue off in the distance under the cloudless sky, and dotted along the horizon with ships waiting for a berth in one of Africa’s busiest ports.
When coffee is served, I make my way to the dessert table and strike up a conversation with the man in the starched white jacket attending to the sweet-toothed. I learn that Sandile Ngcobo has been the chef at the Durban Consul General’s residence for 10 years. Desserts are one of his passions and all the treats on the table are his creations, from the malva pudding; a South African specialty, to his irresistible version of the classic American Toll House — chocolate chip — cookie.
I pepper the congenial Ngcobo with questions. How did a Zulu man, a product of apartheid-era South Africa, from a family that couldn’t afford to send him to college, get from there — to here? From crowded Fourth of July festivities, to formal sit-down business meetings; from kings (the Zulu king), to countrymen (visitors from the U.S.); from delegates on official business to the Consul General’s breakfast (to date, during Ngcobo’s tenure there have been three consul generals); it is he who does the honors. He speaks of kitchens on cruise ships and at bush lodges in his background. “Often at the end of a dinner, he gets a standing ovation,” a consular staffer tells me.
That afternoon there is only time to hear enough to whet my appetite, to ask Ngcobo if I might come back and interview him and to ask Chisholm for protocol advice on this.
Two months later, my car and I are security-checked twice in one week and given access to the consular compound. The first time, I arrive with camera and notebook to talk with Ngcobo. Consul General Chisholm joins us for a quick break in her day to add to the conversation and to share a sublime three-course surprise lunch Ngcobo has specially prepared.
We start with fish cakes — a salmon and hake combo — served with pickled cherry tomatoes and chipotle mayonnaise. The dish is a visual and taste treat; the fish cakes are plump and juicy, the flavor combos mouth-watering.
It makes sense that a focus of the diplomatic mission’s table is diplomacy around what is served at it. “We take care, when we host, to respect people’s dietary concerns,” says Ngcobo. Thus, “We don’t generally use pork or cook with alcohol, even in desserts.”
He works collaboratively with the consul general and her staff on this.
“We have lunches here; also dinners, receptions, breakfasts. Promotion of bilateral trade and investment and our public health agenda and health initiatives are our two main functions in Durban,” says Chisholm, who hails from Massachusetts and who has devoted most of her foreign service career to the U.S. State Department’s Africa bureau. Among other places, she has previously held posts in Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Mexico and Bonn in Germany. She is fond of doing business over “the good old-fashioned American working lunch.”
When she’s “off duty” and simply at home in the consular residence, give Chisholm a piece of grilled fish with a green salad and a no-frills vinaigrette and she’s happy. Her passion, she shares, is to dig in the garden; to get earth under her nails. “I do that on Saturdays.” She’s planted a veggie garden out back. There’s red cabbage and kale in abundance. “There were a lot of chives recently and Sandile made a chive pesto. I had that on whole wheat pasta with a little grated parmesan on the top. Delicious.”
In the run-up to any official event, Chisholm’s executive assistant makes inquiries about guests’ dietary restrictions. “Some people don’t take salt or eggs or cheese or vegetable oil. There might be a vegan.”
Once Ngcobo has the list of who is coming and what they will, or more specifically will not eat, and paying attention to the budget for the event and what is in season, he comes up with four menu options, which he and Chisholm then discuss and choose from. Between them, they also decide on the wines.
Our second course at lunch is a beautifully plated meal of three-cheese — Cheddar, provolone and blue — ostrich quesadillas. Why ostrich? It was what he had in the fridge, he says. And I’ve already learned he has a passion for Mexican fare, developed during two years spent as chef on a mammoth luxury cruise liner. The meal is delicate, the meat tender, the flavors, augmented by the peppers he has used, harmonious.
We end with the lightest melt-in-the-mouth fresh-orange flan topped with sour cream and chewy caramelized orange zest. By now Chisholm has gone. Back to the consular offices in Durban’s bustling high-rise downtown. Her dessert, like most of her quesadilla, is put in the fridge for her dinner.
Dinner and Dancers
The second time I visit the compound that week, it’s to see Ngcobo handle a live event: a reception and sit-down buffet dinner for members of the Limón Dance Company in South Africa from the U.S. to showcase their legendary modern dance prowess and to train local dancers.
Not much time to chat with him this time as guests sip on wine while, in the background, Ngcobo, assisted by his helper, Paulos Gumede, puts the finishing touches to a meal at which there is a South African guest who is gluten-intolerant (he used buckwheat instead of quinoa) and who said she did not eat eggplant (instead of the planned eggplant parmigiana, there is ratatouille). He introduces the U.S. visitors to the South African specialty of biltong (a kind of jerky), which he is serving up as snacks on toothpicks with melted cheese.
Sea and Bush Adventures
Ngcobo’s career as a fine-dining chef, master of international cuisines, lover of classic Mexican fare, is pretty remarkable tracing it back. It started when the young Zulu township lad got a job in a bakery as a cleaner after his father died to help support the family.
He liked the bakery. He saw the plight of his jobless friends; how they were drifting into crime. “I realized I needed to get into a higher learning institute.” With only enough for a deposit, he enrolled at the equivalent of a city college culinary school.
After trying door-to-door sales to buy things such as his uniforms and chef’s knife, the bakery owner, noting Ngcobo’s potential, helped him get a night-time job in the kitchen at Durban’s Hilton Hotel. “I quickly realized I loved being in the kitchen,” he says.
Close to the end of his three-year college course and encouraged by a chef friend, Ngcobo sent his resume to Royal Caribbean cruise lines. They offered him a job. His first time on a plane was to fly from Johannesburg via JFK in New York to San Juan in Puerto Rico. “Yes, it was very scary,” he says, remembering back. “I had no clue, really, where I was going or what to expect.”
Once there, he found himself aboard a cruise liner much bigger than the Hilton. “There were 3,500 guests and 11 decks, each with a kitchen. The work, two years of it, was hectic. I learned so much.” And not just about travel: the Caribbean, the Bahamas, the Panama Canal, the Pacific, Hawaii, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Alaska. Wherever possible, he would head ashore for the three hours kitchen staff could be in port, to explore and see the sights.
Meanwhile, he was cooking for guests from all over the world. Mastering different international cuisines. Learning the intricacies of ice sculpting and perfect plating. Getting first-hand tips from his chef friends on authentic preparation of their favorite country dishes.
After two years and two contracts, he felt it was time to go home. Back in South Africa, thanks to a referral from a Hilton Hotel chef he’d worked with, almost instantly Ngcobo found himself in the bush. Namely, at South Africa’s Highveld Welgevonden Game Reserve, which had two luxury lodges on the property: Nungubane Game Lodge and Shidzidzi Game Lodge. These had star appeal. They attracted celebrity guests. Cast members of “The Bold and The Beautiful” come to mind. But they came to escape. To be incognito. Ngcobo is not naming names.
Living and working there came with all the attractions of the bush. The “big five” roamed the reserve. In the kitchen he cooked eland and kudu; springbok carpaccio was a favorite; ostrich fillets, duck and quail were commonplace. It was fine dining at its most exclusive. Outside the kitchen, “Our lodge had a fence but it wasn’t unusual to spot a lion at the gate; an elephant just outside; a mamba along the path to the kitchen.”
Four years after starting there, having resigned so he could return to Durban to be closer to his baby daughter, Ngcobo got a call from a headhunter who had his resume. The U.S. Consul General in Durban — where he had once done Fourth of July duties as a trainee chef — was looking for a chef and property manager. The rest is history.
“It’s quite a well known fact that one dines well at the American consul’s residence here in Durban,” to quote Consul General Chisholm. “Lovely food and the beautiful setting are conducive to good discussions and good business. You want people to be comfortable. I think it is U.S. taxpayer’s money well spent.”
Photo credit: Wanda Hennig