Award-winning popular chef Lesego Semenya aka ‘LesDaChef’, chats to us about the impact of covid-19 on the hospitality industry, living with diabetes, and reveals exclusive details about his upcoming cookbook.
Compiled by: Blacklight writer
Images courtesy of LesDaChef
With his extensive resumé, Chef Lesego no longer needs an introduction. His exceptional cheffing skills have made him one of the most adorned cooks, locally and abroad. He has swiftly transitioned from the kitchen into a savvy entrepreneur, appearing in countless high-profile magazines, radio shows and television, recently serving as a judge on the cooking show, Celebrity Mystery Box.
Affectionately known as the LesDaChef, his mission is to “take the snobbishness out of food.” And with his best-selling debut cookbook, Dijo: My Food Journey, he documents his incredible journey through food and offers a handy guide on how to turn your home-cooking into a nuanced dining experience.
The chef also uses food to raise social awareness and helps his growing online audience gain more knowledge of food and diet. As someone living with diabetes, he uses his platform to dispel myths about living with the disease and shows ways to make a healthy diet more fun.
Watch LesDaChef create quick diabetic-friendly wraps:
Blacklight: The hospitality industry was deeply impacted by coronavirus pandemic. How do you think the industry can bounce back?
Lesego: Yes, the hospitality and tourism industry were deeply affected by the coronavirus and lockdown, and still affected. So many restaurants were forced to shut down. Restaurants have always been a tricky business and so it’s going to take a while for our industry to recover from the covid-19 blow. It’s sad to hear of so many hospitality workers and chefs without jobs, it’s deeply concerning. Luckily for me, I was quite busy during the lockdown. I was able to keep my revenue stream flowing in other areas of my practice, but I had to put on hold all my planned events and classes – that was a financial loss. However, the silver lining of the lockdown was that my online audience grew exponentially – my views on YouTube tripled and my food topics were trending and my cookbook returned to the top of book charts. This period also opened up people’s worlds and inspired them to try out new things or things they had always wanted to try. Food was one of the main things people were playing around with. That is a positive for the food industry.
BL: Considering that your debut book was a success, is there any pressure to release a second book?
L: My first book was published by Jacana Media. They did well with the book, it was a bestseller. It’s been surprisingly so popular that many struggles to find copies – I am also struggling to find copies. I think the publishers may have underestimated how popular the book might get. So next year I am moving to another publisher. I am currently in the process of a sealing a deal with Penguin. We have a gentlemen’s agreement – all that’s left is to sign on the dotted line. This time around I am planning to release a trilogy. I can’t divulge too much on the content of the books, but by this time next year, the first instalment should be out.
BL: How important is it to be a published chef?
L: Before publishing my book, I did not fully understand the book-publishing world. It’s quite a difficult field, and as a result publishing a book – to be an author – is more about prestige and documentation. It helped give my brand more credibility. After I published the book, I started getting more offers, more requests to be part of television shows and to be a contributing writer on a few publications. I also believe that through my book I got to show that chefs are capable of writing proper books with stories, instead of just publishing recipes. Publishing a book is a lot of work, it involves a lot of elements, and most times chefs do not have much time to work on other things other than cooking. But it has definitely broadened my horizons.
BL: There has been a surge in African cookbooks. Does that mean there is growing interest in African cuisine cookbooks?
L: There is interest. However, it costs a lot of money to publish a cookbook and as a result, cookbooks are expensive. People do not usually buy cookbooks, especially locally, unless they have a deep admiration for the chef or resonate with the book. My book focuses on traditional foods we grew up on but have forgotten how to make along the way – for example Amageu, Dombolo (dumplings) etc. That book was easy to market because it was highly relatable. However, now I want to explore other recipes or foods in my next cookbooks, I don’t want to focus on one thing
BL: What do you think has inspired this new trend of chefs going back to their roots?
L: I wanted to tell my story as an African chef. People see fine dining and forget that there is a black chef who made that fine dining experience, and he has a background. My goal was to show people my background – my personal journey through food. I also think that local chefs are starting to realise that in order for us to grow our hospital industry, we can’t keep serving only European cuisine to our people and to Europeans visiting our country – it’s inauthentic. It doesn’t make sense: why would people leave France to visit Africa only to be served European cuisine? So I am glad to see so many black chefs embracing their heritage.
BL: Where to do you draw from for inspiration?
L: I travel a lot. I also try and use public transport because that is where you get to interact with real people – that’s where you learn more about [our] culture. Life doesn’t happen in the gated suburbs, real life happens in communities, townships, where people are always interacting. I always try to be within people so that I can get a sense of what they want or like, hence I am quite active on social media. That gives you a certain vibe of the direction we are moving towards as a people. Also, it’s important to also educate our audience. So if we are a bit ahead and people don’t seem to grasp what we are doing then it is our job to step in and educate people.
BL: What do you think chefs need to do in order to create a sustainable career for themselves?
L: Chefs should not aim to be just restaurant chefs. They should not aim to just open their own restaurants. There are so many opportunities in cheffing that one can work in various spaces in the industry. It’s also important for chefs to share their personality through their craft because people link emotion with food; you must also have links of who you are in your work. Share your story and be proud of who you are and where you come from. We have come so far; we used to be embarrassed about saying we come from the township or village but people are now embracing their roots. As chefs, we also have to be part of that change. Even if we are making European cuisine, we must add our story to it. We are always waiting for someone else to try something before we take that leap, but we have been able to identify the gaps and fill them, that is how one succeeds.
BL: How important is it for you to raise social awareness through food?
L: I try and live my life as an open book. I always try and share things that I feel could add to someone else’s life. I chose to be open about living with diabetes because people tend to think it’s a death sentence and that one can no longer experience life to the fullest. I still make and eat beautiful food, it does not mean because I am diabetic I must now cook boring food. It’s important that I serve as a living example that there is life when you are living with diabetes. People still do not understand what is healthy and what is not, so we have to go into detail about the food we eat and how it impacts our health. And we also need to be aware of the fact that it’s not easy to subscribe to a healthy diet, especially on a low income. So we have to educate and show people ways in which they can make healthy food, and make it interesting even on a tight budget – and we do that by showing them examples.
BL: So what’s next for you?
L: I want to explore African cuisine more in-depth. I plan on embarking on a road trip from Soweto to Kenya –in efforts to showcase the food that I discover along the way. And I chose Kenya as a stop because there are quite a few cultural similarities between us and them. So this is my way of establishing that connection between the SADEC (South African Development Community) countries by showcasing our foods. My ultimate goal, though, is to open a chef school and to host my own TV show, not just feature, have my own show.
For more on LesDaChef, go to: lesdachef.com