“If you can dream it, we design it.” This is what pastry chef Boitumelo Nyembe would tell you right now if you had a special request for a celebration cake. She is a creative spirit, after all.
The Johannesburg-based owner of The Cake Chamber started her business in Soweto’s Meadowlands in 2015.
While she had her sights set on a career in architecture at first, designing and constructing desserts became the outlet for her creative energy. “My dad is an artist; he is a painter, so I get my creativity gene from him. But with the cooking, I am sort of the odd ball, because there is no one who really loves cooking on my side of the family.
“My journey was just about exploring my creativity, and it all just came together through baking and decorating cakes.”
After completing her studies at the Johannesburg Culinary and Pastry School, Nyembe worked as a commis chef at the Holiday Inn. Then an opportunity with Johannesburg chef Lucia Molefe helped her realise that she could explore her love for art through baking.
Today Nyembe, alongside husband Sibu Nyembe, serves patrons in Soweto with bespoke cakes and bakes. Food For Mzansi chatted to her.
Noluthando Ngcakani: How did your kitchen journey officially start? Did you ever imagine you would become a chef?
Boitumelo Nyembe: Honestly, yes I did. The culinary arts were one of my career options when I was in high school. I have always loved art and my first option was to study architecture. The second was graphic design.
My mom entered the South African chefs programme, but she couldn’t complete it because of an illness. I would help her study. As I was doing that, I started learning as well.
I then enrolled at the Johannesburg college. From there I did my internship at Holiday Inn as a commis chef for about a year or so, and then I completed my in-service hours with Lucia Molefe who owns Mokgalaka Creations and offered opportunities for trainee chefs to do their hours there. She does cakes. That’s where it all came together – from cooking to cakes. That’s how I started my journey with cakes.
From professional kitchens to baking bespoke cakes and pastries. Tell us about what you enjoy.
I am inspired by food that looks good. I also draw a lot of inspiration from the TV shows on the Food Network. As a student I also worked with some big names in the kitchen like James Khoza.
I would also say that I am inspired by my passion. I really love doing what I do. It is challenging but I love being challenged. I help my clients’ dreams come to life. I always say to my clients, “If you can dream it, I can make it!”
If you could bake a cake for anyone dead or alive, who would it be?
I would love to bake a cake for Mary Berry (English food writer, chef, baker and television presenter). As women who are pastry chefs, we are often overlooked.
The next person I would like to bake for, who is no longer alive, is my grandfather Terry.
Lockdown interrupted many businesses. How did it impact yours?
Hard lockdown was bad. Mostly we were affected on the catering side, but the people were still having small parties and ordering cakes. I offered packages for small events.
As much as they didn’t want to do mass catering, we still managed to get a [cake] order or two in a week. I wouldn’t say it affected us that badly. People were still ordering; we still managed to work.
You work alongside husband and Mzansi Flavour alumnus Sibu Nyembe. What advice would you give other couples in business?
We do not mix business with pleasure. We work in the same industry and we understand how the industry works. That’s what makes it easy for us.
What are some important lessons to live by for pastry chefs?
Know your target market. Pricing is important in any industry, whether you are catering or baking. As food prices have gone up, there needs to be a balance. It is my responsibility, as someone who is offering a service, to find a balance that will not affect my clientele. And I am not saying mark up prices from R5 to R100.
Always be open to learn. It is important to explore your creativity and if you are not willing to learn, you won’t make it. There is opportunity to learn every day in the baking industry. People come up with weird ideas sometimes, so learning is crucial to a baker.
Always be ready for rainy days. When it rains, it pours. Always be prepared for those days.
Who do you consider to be a South African food icon?
The late chef Sammy Mashile. He really fought for our black chefs to be recognised in this industry.
What does the future look like for you?
I can safely say that I am looking into expanding and finding a bigger space. Even if I don’t find a bigger space to work from, I am turning my yard into my confectionary.
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