Ayabonga – affectionately known as Aya The Cook Dude – certainly brings the cool factor to the title “chef”, and with a cult following on social media, he has become an inspiration to many.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main image: Supplied
Since being a finalist on Top Chef SA in 2016, Chef Aya has become one of the most recognisable faces in the culinary world of Mzansi.
But for the Cape Town-born chef turning his passion for cooking into a lucrative career was not an easy feat.
Thanks to his mother who spotted his passion for cooking and suggested that he try out culinary school, his talent would have remained hidden.
“Growing up, it honestly was never something I dreamt of pursuing as a career. I didn’t know one could make a career out of cooking before my mother mentioned it.
“But it has been such an interesting journey and I never imagined that it would turn out the way it has,” he tells us.
However, even though he now pulls off being a chef with such ease and finesse, he reveals that it has taken a great deal of discipline and dedication to master.
“I am a disciplined person when it comes to my work,” he explains.
“Even if I finished at around midnight with a client’s request, I will be ready to serve breakfast the next day with a good attitude.
“But there is still so much room for me to grow and I am excited to see where this journey takes me next.”
Blacklight: How do you advise young people who wish to emulate you?
Ayabonga: I truly believe that to do what you love is important and also the key to happiness.
Young people need to know that it is “okay” to take risks. There are lessons in all our trials and errors, but whether we learn from them depends on one’s attitude. Attitude is everything!
I have a tattoo of a circle on my shoulder. It is a constant reminder to myself that I have to carve my own space or circle in this life.
BL: What do you think has made you stand out as a Chef?
Aya: I think it is my attitude towards my craft. I am generally an outgoing person who is full of life and incredibly disciplined when it comes to my work.
I think people pick up on the love and passion I put into my work , and they also enjoy the experience I give through my cooking.
I have been fortunate to meet thousands of people from different walks of life and I always make sure that I absorb as much I can, while creating memorable experiences for each client I encounter. I think it’s very important to create lasting experiences with people.
BL: Pursuing a dream can come with a lot of rejection and self-doubt. As a budding chef what were some of your most difficult moments and how did you overcome them?
Aya: People usually do not talk about the mental, physical and emotional strength one must have in this industry. It can break you, and you need to be sure of yourself and know what you want.
In the beginning I struggled a lot with trusting myself and my work. As a result I would let people make decisions on my behalf and always wait for approval.
I quickly learned to surround myself with people that only wanted the best for me, and from culinary school to now, I have had good guidance and support.
It took me six years to decide what stream of cheffing I wanted to do. I almost came close to quitting because I couldn’t understand how doing what I love did not make me happy. I sat down and tried to think of what else I could do in the industry as I had already worked in restaurants, hotels, catering, events, etc.
I realised that I had not tried private cheffing because I was strongly advised against it, and told that I would not crack it in Cape Town, especially as a young black man. I eventually decided to go with it – even though I had no plan and no knowledge of what I was really getting myself into.
I gave myself two years to try it out and it’s been an amazing journey since.
I strongly believe that you should work hard, especially when there is no one looking, and let your work speak for itself.
BL: Are there any challenging issues in the culinary industry in South Africa that you believe are blocking the industry from reaching its full potential?
Aya: The industry has grown immensely. It is evolving more and more, and people are able to show the rest of the world not only our talent but also the beauty of African cuisine.
I think opportunity is important and the more people are afforded opportunities, the more we will see the full potential of the South African culinary industry.
For an example in 2015 students complained about the high fees for culinary schools, and they remain a stumbling block for many who want to be qualified but have no financial means.
BL: You are the ambassador for Food Lovers Market and you recently announced your collaboration with Aisha Baker from @Bakedonline. Can you tell us more about those collaborations?
Aya: I started working with Food Lovers Market last year. It’s been an incredible partnership promoting health, fresh food and sustainability, which are some of the things that align well with the brand I am trying to build.
With @Bakedonline, I met Aisha Baker after Capitec Bank contacted me for a collaboration. Our role was to showcase how people can use simple ingredients in their homes to make delicious yet affordable food.
Again, this speaks to the core values of my brand. I am fixated with simple foods, recreating and being inspired by it to create dishes ordinary people can resonate with.
I hope to be working with these brands and others, sharing what I love and also being a positive impact in society.
BL: What tips would you give to young people who believe in the takeaway culture instead of home cooked meals?
Aya: I have picked up that there are foods that people have termed “poverty foods” and young people simply refuse to be seen eating it or even buying it. This is nonsense. It is unnecessary pressure that leads to a lot of young people living a life they cannot afford.
I can’t stress planning your meals more, making groceries and committing to cooking at least twice a week. This way one can pack lunch and have dinner for at least two nights.
Plan your meals for the week; this makes it so much easier.
BL: What words do you live by that help guide you on your path to greatness?
Aya: In Proverbs 18, there is a verse that reads: “your gift will make room for you and put you in the presence of great men.” I am a living testament of this. I have it mounted on my wall to remind me to exercise my gift every day in order to find fulfillment, purpose and contentment in my work.
BL: What would you say is your bigger vision?
Aya: At the moment I am focused on opening my first Kitchen Studio in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. That is my next big dream and I am working incredibly hard to make sure I achieve it. Keep a look out……