KwaZulu–Natal–born chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu (43) believes South African cuisiniers need to take pride in their own food by developing it, documenting it, and sharing it with the world. Her self-published cookbook, Through the eyes of an African chef, embodies this notion by telling the intricate story of South Africa’s rich food identity.
“If you eat indigenous food, it is heaven for your body,” Mqwebu says. The drive behind her award-wining book is to break the misconception that indigenous food has no place in gourmet dining.
“People think that African food is all about meat, and it’s not. Meat was a scarce commodity, because people had to hunt to get access to it,” she says.
Mqwebu strongly advocates for the inclusion of African gastronomy into the culinary sphere. She says that it is alarming that we live in a diverse continent with different food identities, but this is not being celebrated enough in chef schools.
“Our culinary training was French based, so, just like all the other chefs, my introduction to professional cookery was making sauces, stocks and pastries from scratch,” she says.
Before she became a champion of indigenous cooking, Mqwebu had humble beginnings as the daughter of a convenience store owner and home cook. For years, her father, ran a quaint shop in the coastal town of Margate. There she would help him sell supplies to fishermen in the town.
“I learned a lot from how my father worked with people in the community he served. He was a businessman, but it wasn’t always about making money, it was also about giving back and that has influenced a lot of what I do,” Mqwebu says.
Mqwebu attended the Christina Martin School of Food and Wine in Morningside, Durban, where she completed her City Guilds of London cookery diploma in 2004. She says that even then she found it alarming as a black chef that she could not explore her own indigenous cuisine and cooking style. Instead she was “required to conform to Eurocentric cuisines.”
She believes that this lack of inclusion stems from the stigma that African food was not “good enough”. She admits that learning and training in Western food led to her own conditioning – for years she also believed that African foods should not be celebrated.
“I learned that it was undermined. In no uncertain terms I told myself that I am now a chef, I should not bother with cooking ‘that style’ of food and (I) could only cook ‘fine’ foods.”
Mqwebu remembers a moment of revelation in her food journey during her studies. While on holiday back home in Umlazi, she started experimenting with her classroom lessons, making the Italian potato–based pasta called gnocchi. Instead of using the traditional white potato, she replaced it with the rich, nutty potato of the tropics, amadumbe.
In 2005 she started channelling her newfound ideas into her own business, Africa meets Europe. “I said to myself whatever they are teaching us at school could surely be used with indigenous ingredients to make something even better.”
Little did she know that she was on to something. This dish was the catalyst in her journey to international acclaim. Her exploration in celebrating indigenous ingredients was her ticket to the Taste of Chicago, the world’s largest food festival.
“If you eat indigenous food, it is heaven for your body.” – chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu
“I was asked to specifically send recipes that were indigenous to South Africa when I got there. I think that just affirmed for me that it was very important to work on my own food, my own food ideas and my own food identity.”
Today Mqwebu is the co-founder of the Mzansi International Culinary Festival (MICF), an annual event which showcases a diverse range of five-star African cuisine from across the continent.
Among her many accolades in the South African food industry was winning the renowned Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2018 in Yantai, China.
Mqwebu advises aspiring chefs to actively seek out education. “There is nothing that annoys me more than someone who calls themselves a self-taught chef,” she says.
“There is a difference between your food–lover and a chef, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is so much that I learned. Food is a science. Once you learn that science behind the food, that is when you’re able to manipulate it.”