Popular kitchen maestro, Chef Ayabonga Gope – affectionately known as Aya The Cook Dude – shares simple ways to help you improve your skills in the kitchen during the COVID-19 time.
Compiled by: Blacklight writer
Main photo: Supplied
Chef Aya is a Cape Town-based chef. In 2016, he was a finalist on Top Chef SA. And since then, he has gone on to cook for some of the most affluent people, like comedian and The Daily Show Host, Trevor Noah.
Chef Aya has also worked with some of the most well-known brands, he is currently the brand ambassador for Food Lover’s Market, and is popular for his ‘Five Ingredient Challenge“, where he uses ingredients – particularly, ingredients which have been classified as “poverty foods” – to create perfect homecooked meals.
During this imposed nationwide lockdown, which prohibits gatherings, events and public dining, the chef has been using social media to remain active.
But, even before the coronavirus pandemic halted some of the services in the hospitality industry, the chef has always incorporated social media into his market strategy, and he is winning.
“I am a private chef – I do not work for a restaurant or hotel. I am a freelancer. Because I do not have a fixed salary, I have to be active on social media. However, I have to make sure I post mostly about my work,” he says during the IG Live (Instagram Live) chat with Blacklight.
“Not a lot of people have websites or are good at blogging, so if you can keep your social media professional, it becomes easier to market your work.”
Chef Aya reveals that even though he was hit hard by COVID-19, due to most of his clientele being tourists, he found a way to turn it into a positive.
“The beauty about the lockdown is that I am now homebound, and as a result, my creative juices have been reignited.
“I am inspired to create more recipes, and I also host live cooking demonstrations on social media for my followers. As chefs, we learn so much from home cooks and social media makes that easier.”
The chef also appreciates that during the lockdown, many people have been experimenting more with cooking.
Amazingly, many people are playing more in the kitchen, and food has become something for families to bond over during this time.
“This has taken us back to how we used to live back in the days when food was the main connector in families.”
The best way to start experimenting in the kitchen:
“Less is more.” We tend to put so much in our food, forgetting that cooking is more about the flavours, and less about the amount of ingredients we have.
The little things count. Start with what you know, when you get stuck seek advice from someone who is good in the kitchen, then do it better. Like with anything in life, you get better by asking, observing and practising.
Simple ingredients everyone should have:
All the ingredients that everybody has at home, matter – your onion, your cabbage, your tomatoes, your chicken, your canned food and the so-called “poverty foods” [a term dislike].
You can create great meals from simple ingredients. For instance, I love egg-fried-rice. I take my left-over rice, fry some eggs, add salt and pepper, and whatever else I have in the house. That’s a ‘yummy’ meal.
With potatoes, you can peel them and make potato skins fries as a snack. And with tomatoes, I always love a Bisto gravy.
There are so many ways of playing around with food; you must just make sure you understand your flavours, because you don’t want to end up with food no one wants to eat – that is wasting.
Mistakes people make in the kitchen:
Many people over-cook their food. When cooking, it is important to understand heat or temperatures, but I am not expecting everyone to know this or to be perfect at this from the onset. However, you can practise.
When you are cooking, you must always trust your instincts because most of the times they are correct.
Try playing around with different cooking methods because they give a certain variety in the flavour of food. For example, potatoes, you can boil them, fry them, steam them, roast them, or bake them. Explore.
You must open yourself up to different cooking methods because there is nothing more beautiful like having a meal with everything cooked differently – it’s like a carnival in your mouth.
The best way to do groceries:
Before you leave the house, have a list of the essentials you need and make sure you stick to the list. If you plan on spending R500 don’t get to the store and spend R1000. If buy extras when you get to the store, write them down as “extras.” That way when you get home you can calculate exactly how much you overspent by.
It’s important to check the “sell-by/expiry” dates on all your goods, especially since, now, people are buying in bulks. We don’t know how long this lockdown will last, and you want to make sure your food does not go off – that is wasting.
Keep it simple. Start with common things that are a need in most households.
Make sure you have enough storage at home. Many people think food is safe in the freezer, and to a certain degree it is. But you must make sure you store food properly, especially in the freezer, so that it does not get freezer burn because it can compromise the quality of your food – the food can lose its flavour, texture, colour etc. And also you don’t want anything to go off because you could get food poisoning.
The importance of preserving nutrients in our food
I enjoy my family’s food, but we [South Africans] murder everything we cook. From a health perspective, that is not good. We need to know how to cook our ingredients properly so we can preserve the flavours and nutrients.
For instance, with our root vegetables, veggies that grow underground – e.g. carrots, potatoes – you cannot boil the water first then add your veggies. You have to start the boiling (cooking) process while water is still cold and by the time the water boils your veggies should be almost cooked, then you leave them for a few minutes just to get that beautiful texture.
When you remove them from the boiling water, you put them in an ice bath – an ice bath is cold water, meant to stop the cooking process.
Healthy cooking is about paying attention to the little things. It’s important to research the time frames and the right methods for all your ingredients so that you avoid overcooking.
Cooking is like starting a new relationship – you learn as you go. You make mistakes, rectify and then perfect.