Passion is a word we hear every day. But in the culinary world, passion is not just about doing what you love, but also about happily working through whatever needs to be done: from peeling vegetables to organising the pantry to cleaning up. For Jozi chef Mahlomola Thamae, this has never been a problem.
“When the passion calls you, nobody can stop you. When God opens doors, you will outshine others,” says Thamae. “I am so happy to wake up every day to do what I love and enjoy.”
Thamae was born in Soweto where he grew up with six brothers and a father who loved to cook. “We had no choice but to cook. My father was a foodie,” Thamae recalls. “Sundays were always special days as we cooked seven-colour lunches. That’s where I developed a love for food – creating all those special meals for my family.”
Culinary journey across the world
In his 24-year culinary journey, Thamae has travelled from Johannesburg to the open seas and the streets of London to explore his passion.
His journey began at the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank, where he trained for three years. Through passion and dedication, he landed on international waters working in the kitchens of Royal Cruise Line. Two years later, another opportunity to travel to London landed in his lap.
The Hilton Metropole Hotel aided his studies at the Westminster Kingsway College, which is the same culinary school where Jamie Oliver was trained.
After more than half a decade in London, Thamae returned to Mzansi to work at the Mount Grace Hotel & Spa in Magaliesburg where he worked as a senior sous chef for almost three years.
“From there I went to the Fedics Catering Solutions company as an executive chef for five years. Then – my last one – I worked at the Absa Towers in Sandton as an executive chef again. I oversaw the whole operation for five years.”
Today he is the proud owner of an events and catering company, TM Innovations based in Soweto. Thamae is also the chair of the Gauteng committee of the South African Chefs Association and a member of the African Chefs Alliance. His most recent overseas trip was to Pakistan to judge his first international competition in Karachi, where he headed the Cold Kitchen and Desserts section.
Food For Mzansi chatted to him about his culinary journey.
Do you have a particular cooking style that you credit for your many years of success?
I am an international chef. When clients ask me to cook South African cuisine, I cook it; when they ask me for Italian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Kenyan or even Balinese – I can cook it. I am an international chef – I like to try a bit of everything and use those influences in my cooking. I like to create fusions of South African food with Mediterranean touches of fresh, crisp herbs.
After 24 years in the industry, have you seen any improvements in the career prospects of black chefs?
There is still a long way to go. In South Africa we have James Khoza, who is the first black chef president that now leads the South African Chefs Association, so there is hope for us. Through collaboration, we are having conversations about the challenges we face in the industry, we are sharing ideas for our advancement and we are doing chefs training together, so there is a light.
Who would you consider to be a South African food icon?
There is a young black chef, Wandile Mabaso, who is pushing very hard in the industry. We cannot forget Andile Somdaka, who cooked for both presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. I also admire chef Absa (Absalom Kotsokoane). I often go to his restaurant and we talk about food. I believe we must all shine together.
Lockdown was tough on all of us, but how did it impact you?
During hard lockdown I decided to turn my kitchen into a soup kitchen to serve healthy meals, soups and biryanis. With the help of Chefs with Compassion we served almost 3000 meals from our kitchen.
What advice would you give to young black chefs?
Remain passionate, never stop learning, be consistent, cook with love and the rest will come. Don’t run after money; money will come after you.
When you do everything with passion, you need to respect the people that you work with.
You need to be disciplined and you must be consistent and never stop learning. The other thing I have realised lately, is never to underestimate the power of social media.
The industry is very oversaturated, unfortunately, because we are a cooking nation where anyone can just go out there and buy a chef’s jacket and call themselves a chef. Don’t worry about those people. Stay in your lane and shine.
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