Under normal circumstances, chef Phumzile Mbinda (36) would be preparing to cater the biggest event on the Durban social calendar. As a regular caterer of the Vodacom Durban July, she is dependent on these large social events to sustain her business.
The mother of four is the owner of Petals and Bows by Phumi and offers high end private chef services to attendees of the lavish event. However, amid the covid-19 pandemic, patrons will now attend the event virtually when it takes place on the 25th of July.
Despite the easing of lockdown measures, food professionals like Mbinda are scrambling to make up for lost income and to save their businesses. And while it is exciting to see people show off their kitchen skills in their own home, she says, their independence has impacted her business.
“Everyone is just doing their own thing, because they are worried.”
Like many chefs, she has swopped out the professional kitchen for her home, where she now makes cooked meals and platters by order for her loyal client base.
“This is just something we have learned to live with! It’s affected my business very negatively. No one is looking to hire a private chef, let alone caterers for an event. We are managing with our heads held high,” she says.
Mbinda was born and raised in Durban’s Newlands suburb. She remembers her childhood as a simpler time, filled with even simpler meals. While many chefs credit their passion for cooking to their mothers, Mbinda says that hers was a “terrible” cook.
She jokingly says that she would always be envious of her friends’ mothers who would cook up a storm of fun and exciting foods. “Mom was really into simple and traditional food and I felt like there has got to be more to life.”
Her grandmother, Temperance Dlani, is her true kitchen hero. They shared a love for baking and would often prepare warm baked goods for their afternoon tea in the township of Umlazi. Gogo Dlani would guide her to the do’s and don’ts in the kitchen she says.
‘I flopped a lot of the times, but she always held my hand until I got it right.’
Mbinda matriculated from the Mowat Park Girls’ High School in Montclaire in 2002. A year later she would pursue her studies in public management at the Mangosuthu Buthelezi University of Technology in the township of Umlazi.
After completing her qualification, she would start work at a recruitment agency in Durban. Even as a full-on career woman her passion for cooking would make her restless. This inspired her to create her catering business in 2010. “I love the aesthetics of food. I love food that looks pleasing to the eye and tastes good.”
In 2014, she grew restless again. When she gave birth to her last born she decided to pursue her business interests full-time.
“I initially decided that I wanted to be a stay at home mom, then my love for cooking just kept blossoming from there.”
‘You never forget your mistakes. use them as your guide. Always be consistent.’
Her dreams became reality in 2015, when she enrolled in the Capsicum Culinary Studio in Umhlanga Rocks where she would earn her diploma in food preparation and confectionary.
“When you go to culinary schools you learn about all these Eurocentric styles of cooking. For me to be able to merge the two influences of African cuisine and European cuisine – like French or Italian – and make my own creation, that is special, I think.”
As a home cook transitioning to be a fully-fledged chef was a revelation. At culinary school she would learn to refine her cooking and adapt to the concept of “less is more”.
“You never want to overpower a dish with flavour. I understand sometimes you get so inspired that you end up cooking with 17 different spices. I learned to define my taste. I learned the importance of distinct taste.”
Her experience in the professional kitchen was short lived. Mbinda says that women are often undermined and intimidated by men in the kitchen. “For instance, the grill station was always almost exclusively manned by men. I actually enjoyed the grill, and whenever I would request to be assigned to this station it would be a no.”
Today she single-handedly runs her very own kitchen staff. This is a gruelling task, but can be rewarding at the same time, she adds. “Kitchen equals nightmare. Happy moments only come once you are done with a service.”
She channels her organisation skills from her journey as a mother of four growing children. “All of them have different needs and tastes. Managing my home has helped me manage my business.”
The key to kitchen success, she says, is like motherhood; work smart and learn as you go. “You never forget your mistakes. use them as your guide. Always be consistent!”