Chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu on curating African cuisine

An enterprising young chef and author who has travelled the world to hone her skills is taking South African cuisine to new heights with her debut cookbook

Nqwebu’s debut book, Through the Eyes of an African Chef (self-published), was recently launched in South Africa after it sold out at the Frankfurt Book Festival.

We caught up with this businesswoman who is seeking to develop sustainable methods to live, produce and create.  She says she left the supply chain and logistics sector for the world of food.

She says her journey has been educational, challenging, fruitful and gratifying since becoming a professional chef.

“I realised growth from just cooking, to cooking with a conscience: knowing where my food comes from, who tills the soil in the sun and rain to feed the nation, what we are paying them and how we can assist them to make sense of the industry of growing organically by paying the right price for the products they sell to us. It is about learning about food as a science and a craft,” she recalls.

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Mqwebu, who is the former Head Chef of Zimbali Lodge in KwaZulu-Natal, runs Africa Meets Europe Cuisine, a skills training and hospitality service provider, and the Mzansi International Culinary Festival (MICF).

She uses Africa Meets Europe Cuisine as a vehicle to drive projects.

“It involves everything from training women farmers in value-adding and starting farmer’s markets to mentoring junior chefs and earning an income,” she says.

Before she started these roles, she spent 10 years training and mastering her cooking skills in South Africa and around the world, including at schools and kitchens in New York, London and Paris.

She has sat on various judging panels including judging the 50 World’s Best Restaurants and was trained at the prestigious Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, where she learnt how to make yoghurt, butter and preserves.

When in Ireland, she ached at the fact that she was learning the vital fundamentals of the kitchen during an advanced phase of her cooking journey.

“I saw the huge gaps in our culinary training and the lack of transformation of the whole food industry, the core of that being lack of women in leadership positions and decision-making in the food/hospitality industry, lack of acknowledgement and development of indigenous food and oppression of women,” she says.

Mqwebu didn’t allow these challenges to stop her. She educates herself, travels to further her knowledge and shares what she learns. She continues to engage who acknowledge the challenges and negotiates the way forward.

The lack of professional training in African cuisine, misinformed food history, myths around indigenous food and the need to celebrate indigenous food history inspired her to write her book.

Mqwebu says she was fortunate enough to be raised by a grandmother who ran a diner and a father who had cooked on ships as a young man.

“My food culture was diversified, while the core was based on indigenous ingredients and skills. When I ventured into the international cooking scene, I had that and my local cookery school training, which saw me hone my skills at a different level of knowledge and drive. It was easier to focus on what mattered to me. While gastronomic science was of interest, I was already questioning how we source produce and what goes into our recipes,” she says.

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When she thought about writing her book, she realised that the history and culture of African food were glaringly absent at the professional level in South Africa.

“Our food history was either misconstrued or really lacking – failure of acknowledgement of the various cultural groups that are indigenous to South Africa.

“This meant it was not promoted or developed, thus indigenous farmers no longer grew the indigenous crops or grew them for their own use only. It was clear information was lost and sadly, it meant a lot of work retrieving some of the forgotten skills and ingredients. All is not lost, however – the work is underway,” she says.

Her cookbook includes mouth-watering South African recipes, including Amadumbe Salad served with Homemade Pesto, Im’fino served with uPhuthu, Umleqwa, Samp Risotto, Chamolia (African Kale) in Peanut Sauce, Is’gwampa and traditional African desserts.

Mqwebu uncovers stories of how certain African dishes came into existence, with each recipe revealing their cultural significance.

The book is available at all good bookstores and online at: throughtheeyesbook.