Life for a culinary professional does not begin and end in the professional kitchen, Cape Town-born chef Chad January believes. Mastering the culinary arts is a skill that can take you anywhere you want to go.
In the past, working in the food industry meant that you would have to become a restaurant chef, but there are now many other opportunities to explore in the culinary industry, says January (28), the deputy food editor of Pick n Pay’s Fresh Living magazine.
The food industry is vast and if 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that “things can change fast,” he says.
“Sometimes we limit ourselves based on our thoughts of how people are going to react, or what they are going to say. We stop ourselves from achieving greatness.”
Born in Mitchell’s Plain on the Cape Flats, January obtained his chef’s qualification from the Institution of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch in 2014.
While he may currently take on a leadership role for a major food publication, January has worked in the professional kitchens of award winning fine dining restaurants The Test Kitchen and La Colombe.
“When we think of food as a profession you automatically think of working in a restaurant.
“My final year of study was the first time that I discovered that there is more to just the professional kitchen. I will never forget my first ever shoot with Woolworths TASTE magazine’s Abigail Donnelley, and I fell in love with it instantly. I just knew that this was the kind of thing that I wanted to do.”
January would later branch off into television and has already worked with celebrity chefs Zola Nene, Sarah Graham and Neil Anthony.
“It was phenomenal. I was that guy who would prepare all the ingredients in bowls and make sure there were pre-cooked meals for the final dish at the end of a cooking segment.”
January has since hosted a few cooking TV series’, including Spyskaart on SABC2 and Yumm Me on SABC3.
‘I will never forget my first ever shoot was with Woolworth TASTE magazine’s Abigail Donnelley, and I fell in love with it instantly.’
While it should always look appetising, at its core food should evoke intense emotions, he believes. “You have got to feel something when you look at a dish,” he says.
This year, January was awarded top honours in the Galliova Up & Coming Writer of the Year 2020 awards. We caught up with the dynamic fresh food voice.
Noluthando Ngcakani: Chad, you took a bit of road less traveled for many chefs in the South African culinary space, ditching the professional kitchen for food media. Have you ever had aspirations to climb the professional kitchen ladder?
Chad January: My messaging around food kind of switched when I went into food media. In my first three years of studying, I was exposed to the whole fine dining side of things where you would push the limits of an ingredient. When I started food styling, my thinking around food changed. I no longer wanted to push the boundaries of ingredients, I want them to shine, to speak for themselves on the dish.
I do not think I would ever go back to the professional kitchen. I love the work ethic and everything that it’s taught me, but my message around food is different now.
Do you think young chefs tend to forget that there is life beyond the professional kitchen?
That comes from a place where they are just not exposed to it. They just are not exposed to the other ways you can work with food. I am a perfect example of that. In my first two years I honestly believed the professional kitchen was the only thing I could do until I discovered food media.
Where have you drawn inspiration in terms of your journey into the culinary world?
What I have taken away from all my experiences is people’s reactions when it comes to food. I do this thing when I cook for someone or I cook for a group of people, I watch for that first instinct where people start digging in. I never eat.
That is kind of my time to see my work being appreciated. When I talk about my food going forward, that has always been the key thing: “What reaction does your food give people?” Your food should give people hugs from the inside.
What have been some major highlights in your career thus far?
Winning the Galliova award. I think that is my biggest highlight. This is me, just as an assistant editor competing amongst the likes of Abigail Donnelley and Justine Drake. To have entered and won was such a moment in my career.
I joined as deputy food editor at a very young age. I started when I was 23, which is quite young. I have managed to make three covers in one year which is really amazing, simply because those covers had been shot for features and ended up being used as the cover.
And if you weren’t a chef what would you do?
I would have been in the performing arts. It was always one of those things I did as a kid and thought I would move onto as a profession. Now when I think about it, food is theatre.
What don’t you cook, Chad? What is a sort of Achilles heel ingredient for you when it comes to food?
It would not be a specific ingredient, but my pet peeve is when I am served food with raw spices. Like, in a cooked dish and you find a cardamon pod, that is just the worst thing ever.
It comes from my childhood. For some strange reason my dad refused to remove them from the dish. So, there you would be enjoying this amazing food and then suddenly bite into a cardamon pod. To this day when I cook, I rarely use it and when I do its always crushed or removed. You must remove it (cardamon) ASAP.
Who is the food icon in your family? Are you from one of those “cooky” families?
My late maternal grandmother.
The funny thing is I don’t come from a family that cooks. My mom is going to hate me for saying this, but she is not someone that can cook. She can follow instructions, but she can’t cook. My dad was more one of those experimental types when it came to the kitchen. But my grandmother, Theresa Abrahams, was more of a cook-from-the-heart person who never read from a recipe. Everything just kind of panned out from her head.
My fondest kitchen memories were definitely with her making vetkoeks. Oh, she made the best vetkoeks, and don’t even get me started on her home-baked bread. That was the best thing to be in the house and have that smell of freshly baked bread coming from the oven. And then there’s this anticipation for that bread to come out so you can immediately slice into it while it’s still hot and lather it with lots of butter and apricot jam.
What are some of your most simple dishes you like to prepare at home?
I cook according to craving. I will check what is in my fridge and then try and make it up as I go. Specific foods I do love to make for myself have got to be some sort of Malay butter chicken or chicken curry. My favourite treat is a slow-cooked pork belly.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming chefs and home cooks?
Be authentic! If you are not yourself, you do not have a clear messaging (brand). People can see that instantly. Be true and stay true to everything that you do.
Also be confident in you. Trust yourself or others will not. Fight! You have got to fight because nobody is going to just hand you opportunities. You have got to fight and you have got to work hard. There are no short cuts.