Zama Mbane’s last born son, Ovayo, describes her as being adventurous and hard-working. “The things she does is not what other normal mamas do! Her knowledge of food is very advanced and she’s a hard worker. Even if she does not have all the resources she may need, she will try to do the best out of it.”
The 43-year-old, known as Mfazana the Village Chef, is a private chef who has mastered a variety of contemporary and traditional dishes. She studied taxation, but her passion wasn’t numbers, it is the arty side of food. “Food is just my life, my passion and what I enjoy doing. Life would be frustrating for me without [cooking],” she says.
The employer of six usually cooks for private functions and events and conducts classes for members of the public who have a desire for improving their cooking skills. She says food plays an essential role during social gatherings.
“Without food, there would not be events. You know when there’s an event and it’s time for dining, that’s the only time when people get to meet and socialise. Food is a glue for uniting people,” she says.
Mfazana’s cooking journey is filled with passion, chemistry and mysteries.
“What I love about my career is the fulfilment of knowing that the route to someone’s heart is through their stomach. If I cook for you and feed you, I know that I would have given you life, happiness. And you can’t think or make rational decisions if your stomach is empty. I restore your thinking capacity to make sound decisions,” she tells me.
‘I am Mfazana, the Village Chef’
She hails from the humble beginnings of KwaZakhele in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. She learned her cooking skills from her aunt, Ndileka Majavu, and her stepmother, Thembisa May, who would cook gourmet meals and use herbs that had a divine flavour and an unforgettable aroma.
The Village Chef says she enjoys cooking traditional meals “because people think for you to have a successful event you must have contemporary food, whereas it’s not the case”.
“I am known as Mfazana the Village Chef, so people think that one only cooks traditional food. They don’t think a chef from the village can cook modern meals. People identify certain meals with certain ethnicities. However, I excel in both traditional and modern ways of cooking.”
Her food is mesmerising, yet simple. Not interfering too much with the natural flavours and characteristics of her ingredients is a firm ethos for Mfazana. “I am the type of chef that mostly uses salt, pepper and herbs to enhance the natural flavour. Some spices kill the natural taste of food. Naturally, meat has its own taste, if you mix it with certain spices, those spices will take over the natural taste of the meat. Whenever I cook, I am mindful of not taking away the natural flavour of food,” she says.
My aim is to have a restaurant
Mfazana started cooking around 2003 after getting married. But she’s only professionalised her passion recently. She’s a cookery student at Capsicum Culinary Studio in Durban. She’s now focusing on mastering pastries. “My aim is to have a restaurant. I am doing the pastry side because I wanted to know enough that when you go to my restaurant, we’d make you cake or a meal that you will only get [there],” she says.
There’s one thing that immensely irks her about culinary institutions – accessibility and expensive pricing. “My concern is the number of people who’d like to join the culinary school. I wish government could do something by putting structures in place for people who cannot afford it. Every day I get messages from people asking ‘where can I get funding’, especially in the Eastern Cape.”
One day she hopes to open an affordable culinary institution.
Mfazana, I am a farmer just a little bit
Mfazana is more than a chef. “I am a farmer just a little bit,” she says. Back in the country, she has 101 sheep, 16 cows, 55 traditional and egg layer chickens, two pigs and a garden which is struggling because of the drought in the Eastern Cape. In the garden, she’s planted spinach, beetroot, green peppers, potatoes, carrots, onions and lucerne, which feeds cattle and sheep.
When asked what she loves the most about being a chef and a farmer, she laughs very loudly, and says: “I am accused of being cruel! For example, I had ducks, so I posted on Instagram that ‘one of them will be dinner tonight’. People said ‘you are so cruel!’ When I finished cooking it and posted it online as a meal, people started saying ‘Hmmmm, it looks delicious but yoh!’” She laughs again. “I love farming but also love cooking. I’m conflicted.”
Mfazana’s most beloved animals are sheep. “The way sheep act, you will love them. They are a very close family and they have manners. I love sheep.”
It’s not odd that she loves them from the start to end. “I love lamb meat,” she says, adding that you get what you give.
“Whatever food or medicine I give to the animals, is what I will receive. The way I treat the animals or the crops, or whatever love I give, that’s what I will get as an end product in the plate. I must put so much love and effort in making the animals or crops happy, if I want to have a delicious meal out of them.”