For as long as she could remember, Nondyebo Mgoboza from Jozanashoek, a village in Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape, wanted to be a chef. And even when tough times hit, she faced it head-on and realised her dream.
Like many, the global pandemic gave Mgoboza time to pause, reflect and ask herself: What is next? “When Covid-19 arrived in South Africa in 2020 and lockdown was implemented, I saw a need to think beyond the box,” she says.
After being laid off when the pandemic hit, she refused to lie down and used the time to acquire new skills. “I guess I am not the only one who has trained her intellect to seek out skills that will empower us to build generational wealth,” she says.
Today Mgoboza, fondly known as Chef Gee, is a chef at Bertha House in Mowbray. She also caters and bakes cakes as a side hustle.
A love for food and music
Mgoboza loved being active and even belonged to a women’s football club in her community alongside her sister Mandisa. Practice would often run late, and when they would return, they would discover that their mother, Nonkosomzi, had only cooked for herself and her youngest sister, Nosipho.
This sparked her food interest and prompted her to get her hands dirty and prioritise cooking meals. “I didn’t like being yelled at, which is why I practised to perfection with the pots,” she says.
“I loved browsing catalogues, so hospitality courses always piqued my interest.”
Mgoboza tells Food for Mzansi that she always wanted to cook in a professional kitchen but had an equal passion for radio.
“I loved listening to radio, and people like Tsidi Jokwana Monteiro of Umhlobo Wenene FM inspired me. I imagined that by this time I would be broadcasting on a national radio station.”
While she worked as radio presenter for Lathitha community radio station, her food love continued to grow, but there were insufficient funds to attend culinary school.
At the age of 21, she began working as a cashier in a retail establishment in Sterkspruit and took on the responsibility of assisting at home. She felt compelled to do so after her late father, Vuyisile, died in 2004.
She believed it was about time she aided her mother in caring for her two sisters.
“My mother was a pre-school teacher, and her salary was not enough to keep us afloat. I promised her that I would do whatever it took to meet her halfway. And since the agony of losing her spouse when we were still young was too much to bear, I did just that.”
An opportunity opens
Mgoboza moved to Cape Town to seek greener pastures. Her first job as a cook was at Primi-Piatti at the Waterfront in 2015.
Here she was taught basic culinary skills such as cutting, making your own stocks, kneading dough, kitchen safety precautions, cleaning as you go, and utilising five basic sauces.
In 2017, she was given the opportunity to pursue a career as a chef. She began a six-month course at Infinity Culinary Training in the Cape Town CBD in July of that year to master basic cooking skills.
“After completing the six-month course, I applied for a seasonal job at Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, and from there I received recognition from chef Dion Vengatass,” she recalls.
“Dion recognised my eagerness to learn and used it to groom me, which is when I signed a permanent contract as a commis chef until the Covid-19 saga.”
When one door closes
Mgoboza was laid off in 2020 after the first hard lockdown hit Mzansi. Not one to sit idle, she soon enrolled for course at the Divas Baking School in Bloemfontein where she learned how to bake and decorate confectionary. “We were only taught how to create cakes at work and in my previous training course, but not how to decorate them,” she says.
“I registered at a cake decoration school so that I could make cakes, muffins, biscuits, cupcakes, and other baking crafts.”
Thinking outside of the box did not stop and end with cakes. Mgoboza also did a short in permaculture. She says that Covid-19 awakened a fire in her, and now she has a better understanding of food security, climate change, and how trade with other countries can affect the whole country’s economy.
“I always wanted to do this but I was always too busy with work.”
She believes that knowing how to cook qualifies you to start your own business. “Go for it, travel the world, as there is so much to do with food,” she says.
Take responsibility for your own future, she adds. “I now define myself, and I can speak my truth no matter what.”
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