Cooking and music are one and the same, says Paul Hlaisi, a Limpopo–born cook and food consultant who, every now and then, also hits the decks as a part-time DJ. He believes there is a strong correlation between good food and music. Music, after all, creates the perfect atmosphere to develops the flavours of food.
Hlaisi works and lives in Pretoria, but the 28-year-old says it is especially when he is cooking in the kitchen of his mother, Linda, that it feels like the symphonies take control although his love for cooking comes from his late father, Phillip.
“I lost him way back when I was a kid. Apparently, he used to whip up a crazy meal. It’s something genetic, I guess,” he laughs. “I have some of his recipes lying around the house, so I try them now and then.”
His love for music is also inherited from his dad. “My dad had a serious record collection and as a kid at about 12 or 13 I discovered Miles Davis’ (1959 album) “Kind of Blue”. The music sounded like a movie. I did not know what genre it was, but it blew my mind.”
Today, long after his father’s passing, his love for music and food still stand strong. “The two things we have an instant connection with are food and music. Most of what I cook is influenced by the music I listen to.”
Hlaisi says he has been cooking for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Giyani he was an independent boy, he recalls. From as early as seven years old he would often prepare his own lunches after school.
Oh, how those moments in Giyani, made up of around 200 villages, are filled with great memories of mischief and exploration. In his adolescence, Hlaisi would spend his days riding his bicycle at the crack of dawn to hunt birds in the bushes with his friends.
“Getting into food and having that experience might probably be one of the biggest memories I have. We used to drive around picking up mangoes and fruits everywhere and sit down under a tree in a corner and eat those. And then we would come back dirty and get hidings for leaving the whole day and not eating.”
These adventures IN GIYANI would cultivate his deep love and appreciation for food.
“It was fun growing up in the wild and the villages. It is a memory that makes me appreciate food and where it comes from even more, because I grew up seeing these things (fresh food) coming from the wild. Not going to a supermarket and buying a fillet. It played a major part in the way I cook and choose ingredients.”
Hlaisi was 12 when he moved to Pretoria with his family. Three years later, his journey in the professional kitchen would take shape when he started waiting tables at a local Spur steak ranch to earn pocket money.
“Food should be a continuous rediscovery of cooking methods.”
Twelve years later, at age 24, he would find himself working in the kitchen of Cremalat Cheese, a small café in Pretoria. Eventually, in 2017, the love for food and music that he shared with his father would be the encouraging kick that would convince him to enrol into the Capital Hotel School.
Hlaisi, however, did not complete his studies and dropped out a year later. He believes that the broader approach to the South African culinary schooling programme should be adapted to be more inclusive of indigenous cooking styles.
“During my second year, we started studying cuisines of the world and stuff. We started studying French and Italian and all that stuff, but there was nothing that was African. So, to me that was something that made me think, like, why would I go to a culinary school in South Africa and not study anything that has to do with African food?”
Food should be a continuous rediscovery of cooking methods, he says. “Break all the rules!”
As South Africa approaches the 10th consecutive week of the covid-19 lockdown, Hlaisi says seeing “lockdown chefs” take centre stage has been a riveting experience. He believes the more people unapologetically experiment with foods, the more space this will create for indigenous food to take its rightful place.
“We need to close that gap. These spaces are there. Africa has the most fertile soil in the world. African cuisine can be beautiful, people just need to buy into it.”