Stirring up SA’s culinary pot

Khanya Mzongwana is a rolling stone. On some days she works with restaurants to develop new menus, which requires her to train kitchen staff.
On others she styles food, writes recipes and reviews for publications such as Eat Out Taste and Sunday Times.
Every now and then, she is commissioned to cater for weddings or corporate events. When her schedule allows her, she teaches creative cooking masterclasses and hosts pop-ups.

Oscillating between these spaces is the only way to play the game as a guerilla foodie and culinary content creator who doesn’t want to be cornered into “unethical practices like food waste, using shady ingredients and overcharging people for a basic right”.

The Mail & Guardian recently spent an afternoon at home with Mzongwana to talk about her take no prisoners approach, creative agency, unconventional training and South Africa’s need for a black culinary footprint.

Inside Mzongwana’s kitchen where in addition for cooking for loved ones, the chef also hosts intimate masterclasses. (Oupa Nkosi/ M&G)

It’s been “like 13 years” since Mzongwana got her first paying gig in the culinary industry at the age of 17. Her birth name may not ring a bell because she’s well known for her pop-ups under the name Yulu Ishii, which is also her moniker on social media.

After taking a pop-up hiatus Mzongwana recently partnered with marketing strategist Tayla Foong and curator Sydney Keeney to create No Rules Cafeteria. Every three months, this pop-up welcomes a group of familiar and new faces to dine like a family, devouring a whimsical three-course meal prepared by Mzongwana. With a communal eating set-up, live music and an art exhibition, No Rules Cafeteria looks to forge a sense of family among Jo’burg creatives by bringing people from the three fields together in cultural harmony.

Together Tayla Foong (left), Khanya Mzongwana (middle) and Sydney Keeney (far left) established No Rules Cafeteria. (Supplied) 

Right off the bat Mzongwana candidly expresses her alienation from South Africa’s food fraternity. “It’s crazy that you’re here because I feel outsourced, yo,” she chuckles, while pulling up her black palazzo pants to sit down. “It just means I haven’t found an accepting food space that makes me excited about what I can do with food, dude,” she adds.

Much like the way she speaks and dresses, Mzongwana’s cooking practice is as sophisticated and approachable as it is haphazard and hearty. She admits to an “Italian influence” and leans toward large meals that have simple ingredients but layered flavours. She deep-fries sesame- seed-crusted avocados, her bread is a delightfully sweet and spicy pampoen surprise, and her sweet potatoes are stuffed with cheese and chorizo.

“It’s the type of food where you sit there, eating and drinking over chats, for hours,” she explains. With meals that encourage extended communion between those who are partaking, Mzongwana’s dishes succeed in achieving the rarity of being palatable whether they are hot off the stove or last night’s cold left-overs.

Her in-service training that spanned more than a decade has made Mzongwana a well of institutional knowledge. She still describes her practice as an exercise in “winging it” because she has “no formal training”. After a year of studying at a culinary school in Port Elizabeth, Mzongwana chose to drop out because it made more sense to “learn while working” to relieve her mother of the financial strain of school.

A full house at one of the No Rules Cafeteria pop-ups. (Supplied) 

Mzongwana’s culinary muscle draws its lessons from various schools of thought, from chain hotels, boutique restaurants, bakeries and indie eateries. “There are also the inherited instincts,” Mzongwana says in reference to a skill that she can explain only through a meme. “You know it, man, it’s the one that says when black people season food, we shake the seasoning on until the ancestors say ‘enough my child’.”

The only rules to her practice are centralising vegetables and staying true to the ingredients. Her process idolises vegetables as a means to overturn the eating habits many of us picked up in our homes and kept in our adulthood. “We grew up with meat being the main thing on the plate and the veggies were the boundaries you had to cross to get to the meat. I want to encourage healthier and sexier relationships with fresh produce,” she says. And with regards to respecting the ingredients, Mzongwana shuns recipes “where the butternut tastes like meat” because “ingredients shouldn’t be disguised’’.

Part of the No Rules Cafeteria’s team and Khanya Mzongwana’s culinary partner is Ofentse Ndou who made the above dish.  Much like Mzongwana, Ndou’s approach centralises vegetables. (Supplied) 

At the top of Mzongwana’s daily pursuits in the kitchen, right below cashing clean cheques, is a search for South Africa’s culinary identity.

“We don’t have a dead-set food heritage,” she says. “When you go to Brazil there’s fitswada [feijoada], in Japan it’s okonomiyaki and when I come home I’m expected to accept uputu? No dude, that’s an ingredient,” she laughs.

“Our recent food history has been fucked with by white people. Maize isn’t even from here,” says Mzongwana, while leaning towards the table between us to refill her glass of water.

As such, the chef’s practice involves exploring the potential of ingredients that are indigenous to South Africa’s pantry — such as sorghum, pumpkin, cowpea and morogo — as a means to unsettle expectations of biltong, chakalaka, mageu or melktert on local menus.

“Oomama bethu didn’t get a chance to realise their ingredients because it was interrupted by colonisation,” she says. “If this is really a democracy, the proof will literally be in the pudding.”

Those who are interested in dining with Mzongwana at No Rules Cafeteria can check out the Instagram page for weekly updates. 

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