Interview with Chef Khanya (@undignifiedza) By Jemma Williams
- Through your recipe development with the African Beer Emporium, an African-inspired eatery, you are clearly someone who is very knowledgable about African cuisine. What do you think the African food culture has to add to the international food world?
1. I feel South African food culture in particular tells a really remarkable story of respect and love for the Earth and all the delicious, precious things that grow from her, our resourcefulness, our dispossession (the Land Act of 1913 saw almost ALL arable land and livestock taken away from Black people which in turn dramatically altered the way we eat to this day), innate creativity and unabashed generosity. Sometimes when I speak to people about local cuisine , I get the feeling we have a bit of a food identity crisis in this country! Which is what makes being a cook in South Africa right now so exciting. The traditional food we grew up on is rad and nostalgic and to be cherished but I think this sense of “what actually ARE we? Are we umphokoqo? Vetkoek? Melktert? None of the above??” is symptomatic of massive impending change in the scene. Cooking became recognized as more than just that thing that comes before bedtime but also a fun, creative space. We’re cooking in interesting times and I feel this dynamic generation of local cooks and food producers is expanding on our culinary heritage in a really special way and we’re lucky (somewhat) to live in a time where we can share what we’ve learned or who we are becoming with the world at the click of a button. As local cooks, we have access to so much more information and ingredients than the people who taught us how to cook, had. We have a duty to expand on and nurture the core virtues of the cooks who came before us, which were to honour the ingredients at all times by making them taste beautiful and, of course, the old “make sure you make enough food in case someone pops in unannounced.”
2.In the most recent Woolworths Taste Magazine you are featured alongside your mother. How has your family influenced your culinary career?
2. That was the funniest shoot! The laugh we’re sharing in that portrait was one of many big ones we’d had that day. My mom is an incredibly funny woman and one of my favourite cooks of all time. I regularly watched my mom dance around the kitchen and sing a song about something she was busy preparing and knew was going to be absolutely perfect. She definitely passed her massive, almost child-like enthusiasm and joy for food down to me, as well as her uncanny ability to season everything magnificently and produce mouth-watering aromas after just 5 minutes in the kitchen. My dad was also a wonderful cook who loved to grow food and have regular chats with his veggie garden. He legit loved that garden! Rightfully so; it was gorgeous and bountiful with strange new varieties of tomatoes i had never seen before growing in between neatly pruned rose bushes. He was a big Ina Paarman fan and had a lot of her books (and cooking sensibilities, eventually!) My dad often escaped through food, shielding us from the reality of his actual circumstances with these really fantastic meals. Bittersweet!
3.You are the co-founder of the innovative pop-up restaurant No Rules Cafeteria. How do you come up with concepts like this, particularly ones that involve so many elements like art, music, drinks, and food?
3. In the age of info at your fingertips, it’s not so easy to think of something totally new in food under the sun, so we didn’t bother. It’s become a pretty popular concept to “fuse” music and food or try to create an “experience”, but by no means is it a dead thing that everybody wants gone. The pop-up dining scene is thriving because people have become increasingly interested in experiencing food outside of the predictable movements of a regular day-to-day restaurant. As a cook, I often have to think beyond what’s on people’s plates and tap into their other senses. I love a good food play list and I feel like it heightens the experience as a whole. It’s the best because nobody can tell us “hey, you can’t put that in a cocktail!” because NO RULES! No Rules Cafeteria, like many food related things I’ve been part of, is really a celebration of poise, style and unique character. No Rules is a super fun food project co-founded by marketing maven Tayla Foong who has helped us develop a truly enviable social media presence that’s honest, fresh and relatable; curator at No End Contemporary Gallery, Sydney Keeney, who applies the beautiful design treatment to everything we do. We’re a great team because we’re all artists with a keen eye for the peculiar, the beautiful thing that everyone else somehow overlooked; we are all obsessed with creating the most culturally generous experience.
4.Both African Beer Emporium and No Rules Cafeteria emphasise the idea of an ‘experience’ rather than just a meal. As a chef your passion is obviously the food, has it been a natural move to emphasise atmosphere and decor or is it something you’ve had consciously to work on?
4. Everyone who works in the service of creating knows just how long it takes to really be confident enough to be unapologetically expressive and detailed. As a self-taught food stylist, I’ve come a long way from hessian cloth as an actual backdrop to shooting with some major South African brands. I’m flanked by some wonderful mentors who have helped shape the chef and artist I am today. I have been cooking professionally for 13 years also pour over Instagram, cook books old and new and all types of magazines as long as they have food pages. I also read a lot of recipes and It’s helped me form a food voice which is unmistakably mine.
5.As a food writer and chef, what do you look for when you go to restaurants?
5. When I go to a restaurant, especially in the A.M. I obviously smell the air first! You can tell a lot about a restaurant by how their early morning prep smells. Extra points if you’re making a rad chicken stock! I love those restaurants that have been open for 20 years plus but have never been bothered to redecorate. Especially when the food speaks for itself and is really worth missioning out for. I don’t like a big fuss when I eat and my most prized culinary experiences have been in really scantily bistros and cafes where the daughter is behind the till (and possibly too young to work!) and granny bakes the bread everyday. The waiter is basically the purveyor of your dining experience, so it’s always wonderful when the person attending your table is enthusiastic, knows what’s what on the menu and can offer really good recommendations. As far as food goes, I’m not much of a picky eater. I really love a well prepared egg or a hamburger and I appreciate the use of kickass ingredients always.
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