“As a lover of life, I find I am able to express myself best with the food I prepare and plate. Food creates a language that every human understands. It brings people together. It creates love.”
Joseph Seeletso is beyond eloquent when it comes to the language of food. He knows about bringing people together, building bridges and breaking barriers through the delights of the table. His life trajectory speaks for itself. From herding cattle as a boy in rural Botswana to securing a scholarship for a prestigious London chef college to shattering cultural and language barriers in ethnically homogenous Poland. Among several notable culinary achievements, he is the country’s first and only black television professional chef.
There’s no getting away from it, the debonair self-proclaimed fashionista—brand ambassador for the Polish division of three renowned international companies (Siemens and Uncle Ben’s Rice) — is a remarkable man with a gift for producing innovative, delectable, artistically presented food.
Quoting a review when he opened a restaurant and wine bar a couple of years ago, “Celebrated television chef Joseph Seeletso sets the bar high… Dishes like red snapper and lamb with sweet potatoes look like works of art and are perfectly paired with wines suggested by the knowledgeable staff.”
Facebook and Instagram Fame
“Meet me at the Marriott on Al. Jerozolimskie,” he messages me when we agree to rendezvous in Warsaw. Waiting for him in the lobby, I know that even if I were not one of his 5,000 friends on Facebook and following him on Instagram, I would instantly recognize him, no clues needed. It’s my fourth trip to Poland and I’ve learned that seeing a Black African man in Warsaw—the country’s capital and most diverse city—is a rarity.
Which is something he has turned into an advantage. “I am writing history,” he tells me later. “I am a brand ambassador because I’m a recognized personality.” Stylish and charismatic, he’s always conscious that “the end product, the food, has to be special; original.”
I quickly see that Seeletso is a mini-celebrity at the Marriott. Turns out he has an open invitation to use, as his personal meetings space, a posh private breakfast room with a view directly across to the landmark Palace of Culture and Science (formerly the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science), built during the restrictive post-World War II Soviet/communist regime that ended a short 25 years ago.
Yorkshire Pudding and Trifle
We help ourselves to coffee and a sampling from the breakfast spread then sit across from each other at the upstairs window to talk. I learn that Seeletso was brought up cooking. His dad was catering superintendent at a hotel in the mining town of Orapa in Botswana. “My dad would cook for us at home,” he says. Often European food. “Roast beef and potatoes with Yorkshire pudding. And trifle. That sort of thing. So I learned as a kid to make simple things like beetroot salad, cooked and grated, with onions and sugar and vinegar. When I was about eight-years-old, I could stuff and roast a chicken and cook rice and do the salad.”
Meanwhile, school holidays would see the young Seeletso visit his maternal and paternal grandmothers at their rural homes. “They taught me to cook traditional food like sorghum porridge. They exposed me to wild foods and roots. They would take me foraging for wild fruits and vegetables.”
While Seeletso will happily whip up something exotic like smoked Polish beef tartar with onion ash, quail egg and shallots, he relished the soul food of Botswana, a favorite being bogobe jwa mabele with madila (sour milk).
“Always remember where you came from,” he will counsel. Especially relevant these days with the focus on the development of authentic African cuisine, each country their own, grounded in traditions, recipes and produce lost during the era of colonization and now being reclaimed and redeveloped often with an eye to five-star dining and international trends.
Out of school, Seeletso got a job at a bank in the small mining town of Jwaneng, site of the richest diamond mine in the world. Not long after, he felt “there is something missing in my life and that something is cooking.” He took a significant drop in salary to work in restaurant kitchens (including at a Sheraton), waiting for the scholarship he hoped would come.
Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay
It finally did—and opened the door to three years at Westminster Kingsway College (Jamie Oliver is an alumnus) in London, where inspiration and mentorship came from Marco Pierre White who taught Gordon Ramsay and “the chef who exposed me to classical cooking,” John Williams. “I worked under him at Claridges in London. He’s now executive chef at the Ritz.”
During his time at Westminster, Seeletso honed the magnetism that makes him such a compelling TV natural by competing in cooking contests. In one national title event, he and his Malaysian chef partner beat more than 140 teams from around the UK before taking the second spot in the grand finale.
Meanwhile, at his Notting Hill Gate hostel lodgings, he met a young Polish woman. She had been sent to London by her parents to learn English. Their courtship was the start of an international adventure for both.
Karolina Radwan-Seeletso spent three years in Botswana with him post-London. While he worked as executive chef at the prestigious Phakalane Golf Estate, she got into food and beverage management.
From Botswana to Krakow
After our Marriott breakfast, Seeletso and I huddle under umbrellas and brave wind gusts and rain squalls and after a 10-minute brisk walk, I get to meet his wife at the new city center Warsaw Holiday Inn, where she is food and beverage director.
Post-Botswana and 12 years ago, intending to start a family among other things (their son, David, 11, is named for his late dad and Stan, 8, is named for his father-in-law, Polish composer Stanislaw Radwan) the couple moved to Poland. Initially Krakow, where despite encouragement and support from his in-laws, the first years were tough for Seeletso, requiring perseverance and true grit.
Polish, you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to speak it, is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Now I watch Seeletso, during breakfast, totally stun and charm a middle-aged woman hotel guest and her son when he engages them with warmth in what sounds like fluent Polish. He reads Polish books, still battles to write in Polish, but “I take myself as a local here in Poland.”
Authentic African Cuisine
Which hasn’t meant turning his back on his African culture and heritage. On the contrary, the “47-year-old-buggar,” as he describes himself when he tells me he started the morning with a jog through the forest outside this house — “I’m African and I love being in the forest”—integrates his “roots” into his cooking. “One of my dreams is to go back to Africa to share what I’ve learned here and to incorporate traditional food—the wild fruits and herbs I remember—into Michelin star (level) dishes.
“I’ve been planning to open a pop-up restaurant in Botswana. I would need to be there for two or three weeks at a stretch to get it ready. I want to do a nine-course menu dégustation, mainly inspired by African food but some dishes could be what I do here in Europe. I want to share what I’ve learned here with aspiring chefs in Botswana and even South Africa. To show them what is possible. That if they have a dream, if they follow it, they can realize it.”
Mopane Worms in Tokyo
He meanwhile has cooked Africa-themed food for King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden. And at the request of former Botswana president Festus Mogae, he prepared a formal dinner in Tokyo for 300 people. On the menu was fermented sorghum porridge “like we eat in Botswana” and aged beef fillet crusted with red pepper pesto and served with morogo (wild African spinach) and dried runner bean. And also mopane worms, a kind of caterpillar considered a specialty in parts of southern Africa.
He recently gave copies of his two cookbooks to Botswana’s new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, who visited Poland last year to attend COP24. He teaches, he mentors, he judges celebrity chef shows, he cooks on TV and regularly travels abroad to promote the flavors of both Poland and Botswana.
Seeletso fits right in with the culinary renaissance Poland has seen in recent years, which goes far beyond the legendary soups, sauces, venison, ubiquitous pierogi (dumplings) and seasonal dishes, especially those made with forest-foraged mushrooms and wild and cultivated berries. As part of the African Diaspora, he is adding his own flavor—in a big way.
Travel Note: Poland is part of the European Union. However, they still use the Polish złoty currency (not the Euro), which means prices are good for U.S. travelers. For culinary travelers, check out Poland Culinary Vacations. “Our trips, created in collaboration with local people, are sure to indulge and inspire your palate, and feed your soul,” says Florida-based Malgorzata “Sarna” Rose, founder and host. In Warsaw, connect with Monika Kucia and her Polish Plate.