When you picture a typical chef, a former rugby player is probably not the first person that comes to your mind. Chefs are delicate and intricate, while rugby players are rough and robust, right?
Well private chef Cwenga Mbinda is an exception, his training from the Capsicum Culinary Studio in Durban has thought him to be graceful in the kitchen. You become privy to this when he lays down a plate, Mbinda has great attention to detail.
For the 27-year-old former rugby player and owner of the Smokey Apron in Cape Town, entering the culinary world happened by chance.
“I tried making food at my own place one day, but I realised I couldn’t cook. The only thing I could make was an egg,” he laughs. Mbinda’s mother and sisters had cooked for him his entire life, so he never had to learn how to do it himself.
Even as a child he was enrolled in a boarding school in Graaff- Reinet called Union High School where the matrons and kitchen cooks took care of everything including his meals.
Since he never had to cook and the only two things he had to focus on was his studies and playing rugby for the first rugby team he never learnt how to cook.
When he left school, this became difficult. Mbinda was a foodie at heart and not being able to cook his own food frustrated him.
He decided to enrol in the Capsicum Culinary Studio in Durban in 2014 just to learn the basics of cooking.
“They taught me the basic methods of cooking and through my creativity I realised that I had an inherent talent for the culinary arts that just needed to be polished,” remembers Mbinda.
He propelled in his studies at the culinary school until he obtained a diploma in culinary arts and another in patisserie in 2015.
Following his graduation, he decided to form a partnership with his aunt Phumzile, a Durban based chef. They catered for different events and functions including the Vodacom Durban July, which is the biggest event on the Durban calendar. They worked at the event for three consecutive years.
“I used to have a marquee there, I was basically running everything and that gave me a sense accomplishment,” he remembers.
Mbinda was also part of a group that pioneered a Kasi food festival which attracted foodies from the townships. The aim of the festival was to create opportunities for chefs to get their brands out there.
He reveals that seeing himself achieve all these different milestones and executing all these big projects gave him the guts to leave Durban last year and move to Cape Town this year in February to start his own business.
“Taking the leap of faith and dropping everything in Durban when I didn’t really know anyone in the culinary space was scary. I came here and got a job and whatever money I was receiving I saved for the business I wanted to start,” he says.
He eventually was able to start his company in July this year. “Obviously there was a lot of uncertainty for me in my career, but I decided to be positive,” he shares.
Mbinda now runs his business called the Smokey Apron from his home in Cape Town where he prepares private meals for his clients and does meal preps.
If he is not making extravagant dishes like a slow-cooker boeuf bourguignon he likes to unwind with more of the simple recipes that include Indian food and noodles.
“I really love Indian food. I love making curries and I eat a curry every week. That’s a standard procedure. I also like noodles, but I don’t just cook them in the microwave. I cook them in a pot, and I add ingredients like vegetables.”
Some of his fondest memories in the kitchen include cleaning tripe (ulusu in isiXhosa) for his mother and helping her slaughter and prepare hard body chicken (umleqwa).
“I have always been the muscle in the kitchen instead of being involved in what goes into the pot,” he says.
“I am also a very family-oriented person. I love the whole aesthetic where, when we are about to feast, everyone is busy. Others are buying the ingredients or helping to prepare the food. Just the realisation that we are all working towards having a nice day is beautiful for me,” he reveals.
In the future Mbinda says he wants to be a respected force in the culinary space, start pop-up restaurants and do intellectual dinners.
“You can be the most mediocre person but if you put in the work you will succeed.”
“I just want to be known and appreciated for what I do. I want to open a restaurant and I want people to get to a point where they don’t think twice when they use my services. I also want to start doing pop-up restaurants starting in Cape Town,” .
“I also have an idea where I want to bring different black intellectuals doing different things together at one table and cook for them next year. We are so competitive, and we are trying to outshine each other, but we need to learn that we can achieve more together. I think I have that responsibility to connect people,” he says.
He reveals that an important lesson he has learnt in life this far is that hard work is crucial. “You can do anything you want to through hard work. You can be the most mediocre person but if you put in the work you will succeed.” he says.
Mbinda says that’s something he didn’t know growing up because even in high school he didn’t strive.
“Playing sports was not a difficult or stressful thing to do I wouldn’t wake up at 5 am in the morning to jog I was never someone who was passionate about anything and I would easily get bored. I would be passionate about something then be passionate about the other, but food sustains me,” he reveals.
“It allows me to actually work hard and feel something either than disappointment it makes me feel like I am doing something with my life,” he shares.
His advice to young aspiring chefs is to perfect their craft and remember that food is always about flavour.
“You must stay in the kitchen and personally I don’t get my inspiration from anything I see on TV. My style is not about trends forrest plating it’s basically around flavour so the only way you can have that flavour that you want is by being in the kitchen and trying out new stuff.
His adds that young aspiring chefs must also try new dishes that they are comfortable with. “I’m not to saying stay in your comfort zone but do things that are going to make you more confident in what you are doing then gradually start doing other things from there.”