It is probably safe to assume anyone reading this story knows the KFC brand, the fast food restaurant chain headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. Now meet chef Ali Majija. There was nothing fried or chicken about his KFC experience here in South Africa, which inadvertently launched his culinary career, won him his wife and made him (briefly) a millionaire.
His “prize” was one million South African rands (there are, give or take, R18 to US$1). This was enough to take him, his now-wife and her sister, “the crew” as they call themselves, on an African culinary safari.
Majija’s KFC adventure — keep reading as it is an entertaining yarn — set the talented young would-be sports professional turned food professional on a path that has seen him integrate his Xhosa cultural heritage and his wife’s family’s Zulu cultural heritage into the New African Cuisine context, while at the same time embracing South Africa’s culinary diversity.
Along the way, he has become a food influencer with a growing following here on this southern wedge of the African continent.
Chef Ali is magnetic, warm, entertaining, and creative with a gift for conjuring up multi-sensory eating experiences with dishes and ingredients that marry flavour, texture, aroma and visual expression.
When I first went to sample his food, having been directed by friends to the Instagram profile he set up during COVID, he was doing pop-ups at a trendy Durban bakery location, introducing guests to the foods of his childhood.
South Africa’s Diverse Cultural Heritage Foods
The next time we connected, he started as the head chef in an upscale new boutique hotel where he was transforming flavours and memories from his childhood into dishes with international appeal. Fast forward to last week.
This time, I sat and chatted with him from outside the kitchen hatch and across the prep table, getting delicious hits of sizzling garlic from strips of aubergine crisping in a pan, freshly crushed mint and sliced lemon, spicy chili and meaty aromas from his lamb kofta sausage. This while he sliced, diced, mixed, sautéd and dished.
Between patiently giving instructions to two helpers, a young teen boy who, it seems, may have a gift for cooking and a grandma or gogo, the isiZulu name you can expect to be called as soon as you hit AARP age 50.
He tells me how he drained, through cheesecloth, then whipped, the amasi, the traditional (in Zulu culture) sour milk, which one can buy commercially in South Africa. This is on the menu as a brunch starter with granola he made by mashing overripe bananas whisked with vanilla, a little brown sugar, some spices, oats and desiccated coconut, all this left to rest, then baked and left to dry in the oven. He readily shares one recipe after the next, always crediting where he got his inspiration or an idea.
With his Farmer’s Table gig, he is collaborating with “vegetable whisperer” Dale Grobler, who grows some of the best heirloom veggies for some of the best chefs in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The pair met some years back, foraging mushrooms. Now they have set up together. Grobler growing. Majija cooking. Creating and curating meals and a seasonal table at a small hilltop farm that offers flower picking in season, about 40 minutes by road inland from the coastal city of Durban.
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“My food is not just Xhosa and Zulu-inspired. We are culturally diverse in South Africa. A lot of heritage foods don’t get celebrated,” he says. Cape-Malay bobotie, he mentions by way of example. “And hertzoggie, a pastry with apricot jam and meringue,” which I had to Google as it was unfamiliar to me.
“We just celebrated Heritage Month (September). It is great that this focus is put on heritage food, but I don’t believe in food segregation. People, when they come to South Africa, should be eating and appreciating our diversity.”
He would like, he says, to see a movement that “integrates the heritage harvest” across the country’s medley of cultures and traditions.
Building Up for a Challenge
“My mom was a domestic. She worked for a family where the mother of the house was an avid cook. Growing up in their house — they saw me like one of their children — they threw lavish parties and my mom took on all of those skills. Growing up, I was drawn to making my own food, cooking, cooking for people.”
His mom made sure to send him and his brother back to the family’s rural village during vacations “so we didn’t get separated from our cultural roots. I had my initiation in the Eastern Cape.”
Bright and athletic, Majija got an academic and sports scholarship to one of the best high schools in Cape Town. He became a school rugby star and looked at becoming a professional. But an injury sidelined his plans. “After that, my heart wasn’t in it anymore and I gravitated to my books.”
His scholarship was extended to the University of Cape Town, where he majored in accounts and statistics.
As a student, he and a friend ran a refuse removal company. After graduation, needing a job, he moved into model and artist management, his brother’s line of work. But he became disillusioned with the industry. He left, not quite knowing what he’d do next.
Come Christmas of 2016/2017. While living and working in Cape Town, he was dating a young woman from Durban. Lots of commuting involved. He and his then-girlfriend —now his wife, Nosizwe Mji Majija, a wellness facilitator and life coach (back then, studying yoga and launching her career)—decided to put on the family Christmas lunch.
“I had met the mom a couple of times but never, really, the dad, except once, and that was very rough. They were having a braai (barbecue), I was invited over. The dad had gone to get beers. When I sat, I sat next to his wife in a chair. As I stood up to greet him, it was a very cold greeting. His words of exchange were, ‘You’re sitting in my chair.’”
Majija’s laughter at the memory has me laughing too.
So, back in 2016, they did Christmas lunch. “A whole spread, a mix of Xhosa and Zulu from umleqwa (hard body chicken), dombolo (steamed breads), then we made liver pate basically using everything from the intestines of the umleqwa (chicken). Then the beetroots, the coleslaws, the potato salads, the boiled meats. I make a great cheesecake, so that for dessert. A mixture of my food, western and traditional. All of that.”
Fast forward, “I go back home, I’m sitting in Cape Town. I get a WhatsApp message from the mom—my wife’s mom, now my mom-in-law. There’s just a link. Nothing else. When I click on the link, it’s a cooking competition.
“She never said anything about the lunch. So I thought, hmm, maybe they liked my food. And now this is a test.” More laughter. “So I took up the challenge.”
A Home Cook and His Helper
It was the KFC Taste Kitchen challenge. “They wanted basically to introduce more authentic traditional things that are relatable to the market. The Asian markets have noodles, that sort of thing, incorporated within the KFC meal. They wanted to do something similar here and were looking to home cooks for ideas. I was a home cook at the time.”
He had moved to Durban by contest time. The audition called either for a pair or if someone entered single and got through, they would be paired with another contestant. “My girlfriend’s mom and her sister urged Nosi to go with me. She was, like, ‘I don’t cook.’ They were, like, ‘Go and support him! Imagine if he gets through and is partnered with someone and there is no bond.’”
For his audition dish, “I made a kind of chakalaka Chelsea bun.” His own red beans with tomato cooked in, then the whole chakalaka base, onions, peppers and carrots.
“So afterwards, I talk about the whole thing in front of the panel of judges. Then they go to my girlfriend and say, ‘You’ve said nothing, pretty much. What did you do?’ She says, ‘Well, I drove him here, and I was up all night just chatting, keeping him company.’ They laughed about it.” He laughs about it too.
The couple find themselves short-listed and are told they have to go see a psychologist for a whole lot of psychological tests. “Basically, are you sane enough to be on TV?” More laughter. They pass.
“And this part is, like, where the torture was. We were bussed to Johannesburg, where we cooked for six weeks, shooting at night from about 8 p.m. till 1 a.m. at a cooking school. Then back to our accommodation to shoot diary entries and to sleep. People getting eliminated on a daily basis.”
The Life of a Millionaire
By now, his then-girlfriend was cooking, doing her bit too. And they make it to the finals at the Emperor’s Palace, an upscale casino convention resort. “Our winning dish basically had to be something that represented you. So I made this bread biscuit and shaped it into a bowl. Inside was a curried butternut soup with koftas (spiced meatballs).”
Coming from Durban, he says, this represented the history of people who had arrived in boats and the idea was also a play on bunny chow, a Durban dish where curry is served in bread with the insides scooped out: “a vessel for food that can also be consumed.”
They had to plate their dish for ten people. And were announced the winners. “We were millionaires. Really. KFC gave us a million rand.”
After that, he says, he went first to his mom and said, “I’ve found the person I want to have a baby with.” His mom said, “Well best to marry her before you do that.”
Then he called his uncle, said they needed to speak to the dad, ask him about marrying his daughter, and discuss lobolo (payment for the bride, traditionally cattle). Meanwhile, they took a holiday. “Nosi and her sister, who is also the one who connected us. We call ourselves a crew. As a gift to her, we said, ‘You can come.’”
It was an East African food tour. Uganda. Kenya. “Then a flight to Tanzania. The greatest experience. Zanzibar, the food was like something I’ve never seen. It’s a Muslim country, but there is alcohol and it’s tropical. We’d go to a place to eat and their juice bar, major fruits and unbelievable variety and things like green oranges that are yellow inside. And we went to a spice farm. Just going through the stories of spices, it’s crazy. At the same time, people there are so humble. And the sustainable living; it was really great.”
Becoming Chef Ali Majija
As he has developed as a chef, among other things, Majija has been committed to broadening his cooking style and using fresh and innovative approaches, leaning into the food and the flavours he grew up eating. Take bananas, which grow abundantly in and around Durban. He has worked on a dish using banana blossoms, oyster sauce, marinated lime, lemon, chili and tempura, resulting in a textured fish substitute great for vegans.
After the contest win, Ali knocked on doors looking for a kitchen apprenticeship. No luck. “People would look at these hands and — they’re not kitchen hands,” he laughs. More than that, there was the long resume with no kitchen experience.
Luckily, he says, his wife’s family was close with the mom of chef and restauranteur Johannes Richter. “She was at their place for drinks one evening and mentioned I was looking. Johannes invited me to come in a couple of times a week to work under his guidance, prepping, prepping, prepping.”
This was long before Richter’s restaurant, The LivingRoom, was voted SA’s best restaurant and Richter, SA’s top chef.
While there, Majija had a conversation with Richter about career options. “Johannes’ view was, looking at my age, if I wanted to work for myself I could probably just start. But if I wanted to work in a kitchen, it was best to get a culinary diploma or degree so I would have credentials.”
So Chef Ali started investigating and found the International Hotel School, which had a two-year diploma in culinary arts trainee programme, where you are placed somewhere while you’re studying and come out with two years of experience as well as your diploma.
He got himself an apprenticeship at a different top KZN restaurant and another top chef. And the journey, which is ongoing, has been, as the KFC Colonel might have said, “Finger lickin’ good.”