As a young boy watching his mother, Nomalizo, prepare family meals, Zacharia Maseko (55) says he could never have imagined that one day he would become an executive chef.
The kitchen of his Mount Frere, Eastern Cape, home was often off limits to little boys.
“I liked cooking as a child, but I didn’t think I could make a career out of it,” Maseko recalls. “I used to cook with my mother, things like steam bread and samp and beans, but culturally, men did not belong in the kitchen.”
Today he proudly holds the reins as executive chef of Chico’s, a restaurant housed at the Wild Coast Sun resort in Port Edward, on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
Reaching these heights on the culinary ladder is the culmination of a journey he started as a buffet builder at the same Sun International beachside resort 34 years ago.
Climbing the ladder
Maseko was appointed executive chef of the hotel restaurant in October last year.
34 years ago, though, opportunities for young township youths were slim in the professional kitchen. His hard work and determination saw his career take shape. “In 1988 I became a kitchen handler, as management could see I had a passion for the kitchen.”
Through sponsorship from Sun International Maseko was able to pursue his diploma in catering management from the Durban University of Technology in 1994.
Since graduating, Maseko has worked his way around the kitchen, first as demi chef and then as the relief chef, learning the ropes of the full kitchen and reporting to a sous chef, before becoming one himself. His last role was executive sous chef, a position he held for eight years.
“As any industry has its own pitfalls, I have learned that to remain humble, focussed on the job at hand and to never stop learning from any person no matter how low a position that person holds are the best traits to have and keep,” he says.
He was not nervous taking on the task of managing a brigade of 30 staff in a bustling professional kitchen, Maseko says.
“I have always been fully accountable, and I’ve been developed for this position for the past five years. I am ready.”
Cooking with greats
He is most inspired by the Victorian-era chef Auguste Escoffier, a Frenchman who left a legacy of culinary writings and recipes that are indispensable to modern cooks. “Today, Jamie Olivier is engaging and fascinates me,” he admits.
Closer to home, he credits Johan Szabo, Gary Hastings and Chris Reedoy, three chefs and colleagues who had an impact on his cooking. “They loved what they were doing and were passionate about it.”
But despite his global culinary interests, the South Coast is where his home, his heart and his family are. He has been married to Nelsie for the past 25 years and the couple have four kids.
While his promotion was a feather in his cap, Maseko recalls his proudest professional moment as being when he was a sous chef, and, along with his team, was called in for a standing ovation after a Valentine’s Day function with several VIP guests.
Sustainability is key
In the past few years, Maseko believes there has been an increased focus on sustainability and healthy eating. He says more people are looking for plant-based foods instead of meat and are keen to know more about the source of their meal, such as how it was grown or reared and transported.
“I am passionate about sustainability and seasonality. The freshest, highest quality in-season ingredients elevate dishes from ordinary to world class.”
His favourite meal to make in his own home kitchen is always a fresh and crunchy stir-fry. “It is an easy dish to make, the ingredients are fresh, and it can be assembled quickly.”
And for his meat loving patrons, he says, “Lamb chops is one of our guests’ favourite dishes. Many of our clients are from the Indian community, so they enjoy any lamb dish as well as our curries.”
Onions are a staple in his kitchens. “You need one when you make salad, when you cook your hot food, when you make a sauce. I am not a pastry chef person; I am a hot kitchen chef,” he declares.
Maseko has dreams of opening his own chef school one day. “I would share my experience with young, up-and-coming chefs especially from the African background where this trade has not yet received the respect it deserves.”