Local chef, Nompumelelo Mqwebu aims to teach us about African cuisine, with her new cookbook, ‘Through The Eyes Of An African Chef’.
By: Blacklight writer
Nompumelelo is an adorned chef, locally and internationally. Her impressive résumé boasts many international stops, including an invite to cook at Mayor Daley’s gala dinner, in Chicago, and a residency in London, as part of her project Africa Meets Europe Cuisine, where she had to present a South African menu.
The gifted chef is also the director and chef at Africa Meets Europe Cuisine, and the owner and coordinator of the annual Mzansi International Culinary Festival.
Blacklight chats to her about her cookbook and being an African chef.
Blacklight: What inspired you to publish your cook book ‘Through The Eyes Of An African Chef”?
Nompumelelo: To share my food history, and provide a broader scope of the world of food through my eyes as a chef and an African. I always dreamt of recreating dishes my grandmother and father introduced me to and of giving them new expressions.
This is my way of presenting a cookbook with indigenous dishes prepared like any [modern] chef would present their food, today.
BL: What is your intention with the book?
N: For people to explore our culinary history. I want South Africans to learn about each other’s food and to come to a realisation that ‘our food matters‘. Also [to] encourage tourism to tap into culinary tourism as a unique offering to share with the world.
Most importantly, I want to challenge people in the food business to look home for recipe inspiration, as they infuse with other cultures, in order to grow our economy.
And for people to see what I have created and be inspired to play around more with indigenous ingredients.
BL: What experience do you wish to give people through your food?
N: I want them to travel on a plate as they cook at home with loved ones. I hope they get to immerse themselves in their own culture, which they might have not explored in a fine dining manner, and also learn to pair their prized wine and bubbly with their own dishes. I want us to be proud of our own food identity.
BL: Where do you draw inspiration from when you are creating a dish?
N: I am inspired by Ingredients which are influenced by seasons and culture – new (and good) trends are always great to watch too. And sometimes an event will inspire me to create around a certain theme.
BL: How did your travels influence you as a chef?
N: I learnt about various aspects of the food industry. I was then able to carve my path as a chef – what kind of chef I want to be, what I want to align myself with and what drives me.
I also learnt to delve into cooking disciplines I may not have aspired to , just to have the knowledge behind the discipline, such as molecular gastronomy (science and nutrition in cookery).
BL: Did you experience any challenges as a black woman breaking into the culinary world?
N: Yes! Right here in Mzansi. The usual: fighting patriarchy, racism, gate keeping, disrespect for African culture and ingredients, and harassment of women in hospitality.
Gate-keeping of women in the whole culinary brigade is still a major issue, and as always, a black woman is always at the bottom of every chain of command.
Added to that, if you’re vocal about the injustices, “invisible” mechanisms are organised to hinder your growth and prospects – right down to actively blacklisting people in the hospitality industry.
My dream, as chef, is to live to see the day when we have a culinary institution that teaches and equips quality chefs with our [own] food heritage and science.
BL: What are the qualities of a great chef ?
N: The chefs in the “real know” are never threatened because they have knowledge and experience. They don’t have to be rude, intimidating and insulting in the kitchen, as their craft speaks clearly for them. They inspire through sharing skill and knowledge and are revered for the right reasons.
BL:When did you first truly know that you wanted to be a full-time chef?
N: When I made the big decision to stop catering between permanent employment and a jumping castle business. I then went to culinary school to gain knowledge and experience.
BL: What would you say is your bigger vision, as chef?
N: My dream, as chef, is to live to see the day when we have a culinary institution that teaches and equips quality chefs with our [own] food heritage and science.
BL: What do you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career,?
N: I wish I had started earlier, though I cherish the corporate training and skills from previous employers.
I also wish there had been training on our ingredients and culture, because our cuisine as a country would be far ahead and this would have grown our farmers and the whole economy much greater than where we are now.
So, my advice to budding chefs would be to start with your roots. First, explore them and then carve your craft around them and that will make you unique wherever you go.
Also, young chefs should not discount culinary education. We need African chefs born in this region to branch into food anthropology and tell our food history, so that it’s not told on our behalf.