From firmly grounded to flying high – chef Thuso Ntokwe has been there. Hailing from the small North West town of Taung, he was deterred by no money or distance in pursuit of his dream. And today he gets to put on his beloved chef’s jacket every single day.
The Johannesburg-based chef proudly says that he travelled the corners of Mzansi for the positions that contributed to his skills set. “Right after my matric year I moved to Johannesburg to look for a job as I had financial challenges. I luckily then obtained an apprenticeship for professional cookery with Protea Hotels.”
And so he began his formal training as an apprentice at the HTA Culinary Institute. It took him to the kitchens of various hotels, where he mastered the skill of working the knife.
Five-star right from the start
His first steps into a professional kitchen were anything but small. The HTA trainee programme helped him leap straight into the five-star scene at the Melrose Arch Hotel.
Then, in his second year of training, he was posted at Johannesburg Wanderers, after which he went to the Free State as a trainee chef at the luxurious Black Mountain resort in Thaba Nchu.
He went back to Johannesburg Wanderers to finish his diploma in professional cookery and became a fully qualified chef after four years of study. That was only the start of an exciting journey.
“I had no idea that being a chef would lead me to adventures across the country that would change my whole life.”
“Being a professional chef has given me experiences not even money could, and memories that will last forever. I have worked with people from across the globe.”
The sky is the limit
With his training done, Ntokwe took to the skies – quite literally when he joined South African Airways as a chef de partie. “My experience saw me become sous chef at South African Airways Technical (SAAT), managing SAAT’s cargo-in kitchen department.”
Eventually, through joining mega catering company Tsebo (which later amalgamated with TsAfrika) he ended up doing sous chef stints in a few corporate kitchens, including Zutari – an engineering firm in Pretoria where he still works today.
Ntokwe is now the master of several culinary techniques and global cuisines, which only happened thanks to laser-sharp focus.
“Cooking is an art that needs attention, passion, focus and more reading,” he says, but adds that a little creativity and a lot of hard work can make you unstoppable while climbing the culinary ladder.
Adventures still to come
He sees the world as a place of endless possibilities, and he intends to explore everyone that’s available to him.
“There is still more I want to learn and do. One day I will own my own restaurant, learn more and teach others by offering cooking classes to up-and-coming chefs.
“I also want to give back to communities and cook more for family, friends, the less fortunate and non-governmental organisations (NGOs),” says Ntokwe. “I hope someday I will be a lecturer and share my experience academically or become someone’s personal chef as I am already doing private catering.”
He also dreams of having a sponsor, like a food brand he could promote, and becoming world-famous.
The joys of home cooking
African cuisines are a treasure and deserve to be celebrated, he says. “I have a lot of favourite meals – from African cuisine to home-cooked meals plated in five-star style. My simplest recipe is cooking breakfast.
“I also enjoy preparing dumplings with mogodu, cabbage and salsa vetkoeks. I also like to prepare cow’s heels with pap and spinach and salsa. In my own kitchen, I would like pasta dishes, African food, grills, a braai and roasted meats in different methods.”
His encounters with luxury led him to believe that home cooking should be an experience. His advice to home-kitchen foodies is never to opt for shortcuts.
“Cooking is a journey, and every meal you make is worth it. Learn to follow every recipe and consistently practise by learning different types of standard meals and styles.
“Read cookbooks and watch cooking videos. But do it your way. If you can pursue your passion for food at a culinary school, then go for it. Follow your passion for food.”
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