Themba Mngoma forged his career as a top South African black chef by thumbing his nose at the stereotype that says Zulu men should stay out of the kitchen, while at the same time using a combination of initiative, determination and passion. The talented rising culinary star who grew up a township boy during apartheid is inspiration for anyone interested in food matters but intimidated by a perceived lack of culinary know-how.
“At high school we used to laugh at the one boy who took home economic classes, learning to cook and sew,” he says. “In Zulu culture — warrior culture — men don’t usually cook unless they’re forced to. Cooking is women’s work. Still today [at age 31, he is the executive chef at a contemporary-chic international restaurant in South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, and with three years experience at five-star hotel restaurants in London, England, among his many impressive belt-notches] I still get guys telling me I’m doing a woman’s job.”
Unperturbed, Mngoma refers them to Google. “I tell them to go online to see who the best chefs are. On the whole, they’re men. So it may be unusual within the Zulu nation, but not in the rest of the world,” he says.
“And the stereotype is breaking down. When I did my International Hotel School training, there was only one other black guy in the class. And the legacy of apartheid is still strong in the five-star hotels here. Most executive chefs are still white guys. If you’re black, you still have to work 10 times harder to prove yourself. But I have mentored quite a few young black South African would-be chefs and I can see that in the future there will be lots more.”
Mngoma’s dad is Zulu. His mom is Xhosa. This caused problems during the dying days of apartheid when anyone in the townships seen to be a supporter of the ANC (Nelson Mandela is Xhosa) was being violently targeted. Fearing for the lives of her five children, his mom went to the Eastern Cape (her birthplace) to build a home for the family.
This forced Mngoma’s dad to take on the role of cook. He had an unusual teaching style. “He would tell me to put the onion in the hot oil — and run away so I didn’t get burned.”
Nonetheless this early learning was probably the reason, when he finished high school, that the young Mngoma, without funds for higher education, went and found a job washing dishes in the scullery of a Cuban-themed restaurant in Durban.
“I didn’t even know what a leek was. If the chef shouted for leeks, I would take him celery and a leek so he could show me which one.”
He was interested in learning and started reading food magazines and watching anything about cooking he could find on TV.
The restaurant owner saw Mngoma’s interest and moved him into the kitchen. “I loved it. I was far more interested in food than washing dishes. Cooking was a new world to me,” he says.
Soon he was getting loans and funding for hotel school, after which he started working at an ever-more impressive array of restaurants in South Africa, then a luxury lodge in Tanzania. London called until, after three years and with an expired work permit, he returned to South Africa to more upscale restaurants, a stint as owner of a catering and event business — and now, for not yet quite three months, executive chef at Stephnie’s in Pretoria. With the summer month’s just heating up, we asked him for some South African-style entertaining for Cuisine Noir readers.
Themba Mngoma’s Tips for Summer Entertaining
1. Be inspired by what’s in season. Fresh and seasonal are good first in terms of color, texture and presentation, says Mngoma. “Look at spinach. When you buy it frozen, it’s been blanched first. It’s nothing like what you can grow in the garden or buy from a fresh produce or farmer’s market.” Then out of season items are often shipped in. “I don’t have problems flying in something you cannot get, like beautiful Norwegian salmon. But if I can find an in season substitute for anything I do, not least because of the impact of the environmental footprint of transporting in goods.” Then there’s the all-important third element. Taste. Anything tastes better when it’s in season and picked fresh.
2. Think of enjoying both yourself and your guests. Otherwise, why invite them? “You want to be feeding people and chatting to them at the same time. You want to be mingling,” says Mngoma.
To this end, create a menu that won’t keep you in the kitchen. “Think of things you can prepare in advance and finish off in about five minutes. Mngoma’s easy-to-adapt recipe for amadumbe wrapped with bacon, chicken ballantine, mango and peppadew salsa is a perfect starter. “With this dish I can throw my bacon and amadumbe (try substituting sweet or regular potatoes) onto the braai (barbecue). The chicken, I’d prepare in advance. The salsa takes about two minutes to make. I’d serve it on a platter rather than individually plated.”
3. Pasta and cold soup. “One of my favorite things to cook for myself is pasta. It usually takes maximum 10 minutes to cook, which makes it great for entertaining. So while it’s cooking, you’re making your sauce, which you can also do in advance. Soup is also something you can prepare in advance and a cold soup is great for summer entertaining. Gazpacho is a good one. Cold vichyssoise is another good one.
4. Think of a meal as an experience. “The most memorable meal I’ve had to date was at the end of my three years working in London.” He went to Gordon Ramsey’s two Michelin star restaurant, Petrus. “I went there planning to order the massaged steak but the waiter talked me into the 7-course tasting menu.”
One course was foie gras and another, “I got one scallop on a plate and I could literally count the caviars. A lot of people want to come back from a restaurant or end a meal feeling really, really full. But what I liked was, they weren’t selling big food. They were selling the experience. I think that’s something to think about with food, even home entertaining — the experience you’re serving people.”
5. Shisa-nyama — the Zulu equivalent of the barbecue. Traditionally, going back in time, the Zulus were rural people. At some point, money become more important than the cows. The guys had to find work in the cities at the mines in Johannesburg for example and single-sex hostels were created for accommodations. There were no women there to cook. If you’re a guy and you’ve never cooked before, you make fire, throw some meat on it and bob’s your uncle. What is easier than that? It makes sense to me that this is how the Zulu concept of shisa nyama began. And what better way to bond than cooking together over a fire?”
6. Change passion fruit and lemonade (drink) into a dessert. “Make a lemon chiboust in advance and put it in the freezer,” says Mngoma. Also, in advance, make a passion fruit jelly by combining 100 mls of passion fruit juice with 100 grams of gelatin. Make a neat clear syrup by boiling water and sugar. If you’re going to put this in the fridge, add about half a spoon of gelatin to stop it from crystallizing. Add chopped mint leaves when cool. Plate the lemon chiboust and jelly “the way you think looks best” and spoon over clear syrup with mint leaves. “What you’ve done is transformed a non-alcoholic cocktail into a delicious dessert,” he says.
7. Yes, you can cook! “Anybody,” says Mngoma, “can do anything a top chef can do simply by accurately following a recipe. It’s not difficult!”
For your South African inspired summer affair, order South African produce online from The African Hut.
Photo credit: Anike Stander