“Black chefs in high positions in top kitchens are like hen’s teeth,” says celebrity chef Zola Nene.
south african chef zola nele
Credit: Courtesy of Chad Hendricks

Zola Nene, celebrated TV chef and co-host of The Great South African Bake Off, is known for her wit and warmth on screen. Between offering cooking tips on television to sharing home-style recipes on Instagram from her first cookbook Simply Delicious, Nene can be spotted at the country’s snazziest food and wine events dressed in her trademark bright colors and Zulu bead accessories.

“I’ve been told many times during my career that I only got to where I am because I am a Black woman,” she says. “What those people don’t understand is that I have to work twice as hard to earn any recognition because of these very stereotypes. I’m a good chef and stylist and food writer—I hate it when people undermine that.” Nene says that it started when she was the only Black student at her cooking school back in 2010. “I remember being singled out a lot to do certain appearances because I was the only ‘token Black,’” she says. “They never used those words, but it was obvious.”

Nene’s career has taken her from top professional kitchens into the creative world of television, but overall, there remains a dire lack of Black representation at the head of South Africa’s established fine-dining restaurants. This conspicuous absence continues across food publications – writers, editors, photographers and, to a lesser degree, stylists.

Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, there has been significant improvement in socio-economic disparities, but the overall gaps between rich and poor, Black and white remain a pestilent reminder of the past. According to statistics in South Africa’s Living Conditions report released in 2017, based on 2015 data, “White-headed households had an income roughly 4.5 times larger than black African-headed households" and three times larger than the average national income.

“Black chefs in high positions in top kitchens are like hen’s teeth,” Nene says, adding that she’s inundated with messages from Black youth who want to study but can’t afford the fees. “I just wish the courses were a little more affordable. I think what we need is more funds for underprivileged youth to study at these prestigious cooking schools.”

The lack of Black chefs owning and running top establishments also means indigenous food, unless appearing as a whimsical homage to a sauce, flavor or single ingredient, is missing from South African fine-dining menus. Save for a smattering of traditional restaurants in tourist-heavy Soweto in Johannesburg, casual shisa nyama or “braai” (barbecue) restaurants in some provinces, and shebeens (casual, traditionally unlicensed bars) servicing the often cash-strapped lunch-eater across townships, you’d be hard-pressed to find beloved dishes like pap (similar to ugali, or stiff maize meal), morogo (wild spinach), tripe, samp (hominy) and beans or "running chicken" (a free-range mature bird) stew anywhere outside someone’s home.

The lack of Black representation further entrenches the deprioritization of traditional and indigenous foods on restaurant menus. As 26-year-old Vusumuzi Ndlovu, who heads Marabi Kitchen & Jazz Club in Maboneng, Johannesburg, says, there is no emphasis on local cuisine at South African culinary schools. Currently a finalist in the running for the title of S. Pellegrino Young Chef 2018, he says, “At chef school you’re made to feel that French cuisine is superior or you hear that the best restaurant in the world for five years running is in Denmark.” In an ideal world, South Africa’s Black chefs should feel “safe to do the same and display who we are," he says. "Those guys are great because they are honoring their heritage.”

Hope Malau, author of South African cookbook Johanne 14 and senior food assistant at Woolworth’s TASTE magazine, says that the South African cuisines sold and marketed at restaurants “are more Afrikaner than indigenous." He continues, "Our restaurants have nothing ‘Black’ on their menus because it’s simply not good for business. The patrons are mostly white. And Black South Africans want something different when they eat out.”

While there is a conspicuous absence at the upper echelons, South Africa’s restaurants and hotel kitchens run on Black labor. The workforce of scullers, line-cooks and service staff is overwhelmingly Black. Gomotsegang Modiselle, head chef and co-owner of The Hot Skillet on Cape Town’s trendy Bree Street, says that this has remained relatively the same since he started. He also observes that culinary school-trained chefs have no idea how to prepare indigenous cuisine.

“I have not heard of anyone coming out of culinary school saying that they learnt how to make sheep’s head and pap and have perfected it,” saying that these are the dishes he learned how to prepare at home. The Hot Skillet serves breakfasts, burgers, sandwiches and while Modiselle is still gauging public interest, he hasn’t yet introduced any traditional food. “We want to try out a night where we serve our ethnic food and see how the public receives it,” he says.

It’s worth noting that the few Black chefs like Ndlovu, who are at the head of a top-rated kitchen, tend to be young and male. Take 24-year-old Durban-born Loyiso Mtoba who runs Gemelli Cucina in Bryanston, Johannesburg. Then there’s Katlego Mlambo, a 29-year-old sous chef at The Pot Luck Club, one of three Cape Town restaurants owned by chef Luke Dale-Roberts (his The Test Kitchen restaurant has been featured on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for a number of years).

“You get treated differently," says Mtoba, who attended Durban’s Capsicum Culinary Studio. "Even if you work extremely hard, at the end of the day you get called useless. You’re never trusted and your hard work gets thrown under bus. You’re looked down upon because you’re Black."

Today, South Africa’s food television scene isn’t short of Black talent, which is a stark contrast to working kitchens. Arguably the most famous South African TV chef, ex-Drum magazine food editor Siba Mtongana, hosts Siba’s Table, which is broadcast across every continent on the Food Network; celebrity chef Lentswe Bhengu hosts Africa on a Plate; and chefs Nti Ramaboa and Benny Masekwameng (formerly a host on the MasterChef SA series and Ultimate Braai Master) are television fixtures. While a career in local television might seem glamorous and lucrative, unless you’re at the very top, “the reality is very different," says Zola Nene. "Staff and presenters work long hours and often for very little pay.”

Long before the rise of the mega-celebrity chef and enormous budgets to rig up fantasy kitchen stages, retired True Love magazine food editor Dorah Sithole carved a solitary path as one of few visible Black chefs. As far back as 1987, when she started with the publication, she’s promoted South African indigenous and African food (“It’s not poverty food,” she’s been known to say) through the magazine, her internationally acclaimed cookbooks like Cooking Cape To Cairo and TV appearances. Today, chefs from Mtongana to recipe developers like Thuli Gogela of Mzansi Style Cuisine and food stylist Mokgadi Itsweng acknowledge "Ma’Dora" as influential in their careers.

“The food publishing industry is still very white," says Itsweng, a formerTrue Love food editor who counts Sithole as a mentor. "Always having to prove your worth and talent is a challenge. As a black stylist and food editor, you are relegated to working on so-called ‘Black brands’ only.”

Cookbook author Hope Malau says there’s a dearth of Black food writers at local culinary publications because many face challenges similar to his.

“We grow in a totally different environment to our white colleagues, even though the population is an 80 per cent Black majority," he says. "The culinary world is white-centric."

Itsweng adds, “The industry needs to set and reflect an ‘African’ aesthetic. We are still stuck on following foreign trends, so we are constantly looking for validation from [the] outside. Anything African is ‘too Black,’ and is therefore not sophisticated enough.” She says there is a dire need for a change in leadership in publishing.

Nene, Modiselle, Mtoba, Itsweng and Mlambo speak passionately about the necessity of mentorship in developing a new generation of confident Black food professionals. Modiselle points out that culinary schools offer scant scholarships or outreach programs, echoing Nene's point about the lack of funding.

“One of my mentors is P.J. Vadas [chef at The Hog House] – he was a tough chef but also fair," Mlambo says. "He wanted you to be better than him. I’d like to be that kind of mentor and help develop the next generation of Black chefs.”