‘I’m no Pablo Escobar, but I am a bad-ass chef’

Powerhouse chef Jess Levin is kicking butt and taking names on the Cape Town culinary scene

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The adage, “you eat with your eyes” has never been truer in an era where social media rules the world, says chef Jess Levin (30).

Prior to international lockdowns brought about by covid-19 disruptions, Levin had been an ardent traveler, trotting the globe and exploring her food passion.

The Cape Town-born chef is the founder of the Culinary Cartel, established in 2015, a business which combines her interests in food consulting, food styling and private chefing.

Chef Jess Levin’s food adventures have seen her travel the world. Photo: Supplied

Like many chefs, Levin has since been forced to become nimble and quick to adapt under the “new normal”.

With her cutting-edge knowledge of food trends, honed over twelve years immersed in the industry, Levin is not one to idle. In the height of global lockdowns she turned to social media to share her creative culinary expression with the world.

“It’s nice when your hobby aligns with your passion. Food media is such a great creative outlet that ties together my passions for photography, visual art and food. It’s a nice intersection of all things Jess,” she says.

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“When covid hit, we suddenly had all this time. I started to show people how to make Asian-inspired dumplings and how to make a really good spaghetti bolognese and it was really great.

“People started sharing my work, brands made contact with me, I did a lot of work with Leonista, a tequila company and it just started snowballing from there.

Levin has cooked around the world absorbing an abundance of techniques and gaining a great deal of knowledge from each of her adventures. She is most influenced by Asian, South, and Central American flavours.

“I pour from all sorts of places. I never try to say it’s from this place or its exactly this, because it’s too sacred to people’s culture and you can never get it exactly right,” she says.

Recipe appropriation is a line she refuses to overstep. “I always try to be mindful when drawing inspiration and crediting where the influence is from. If we only cook from our own cultures food would be boring.”

‘I think every chef has a gran who could cook, she was really great at making pastries and classic granny things like cakes.’

A whirlwind adventure came knocking ahead of international lockdown in March. Levin was on break with her husband, Jake, in Sri-Lanka after spending a month in Dubai, doing a food consult for hospitality company, HWH Investments in the Emirates.

“You know that week where everything just sort of like stood still. We had this transition from ‘oh people are just a bit worried’ to everyone panicking.

“That’s when corona kicked off and me and my husband nearly got stuck. We could not get back into Dubai. It was really a mess. It was scary because the country started to get weird and strict, you just don’t want to be in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and things are going wrong.”

They managed to get out on one of the last flights.

Sisterly chef ties

Levin was only twelve when she began her journey into the culinary world.

Her sister, Catherine Bothner (39), was a personal chef and would often take her sister with her to various chef’s gigs in Cape Town.

While her bond with her mother, Sally, may be solid, Levin reveals that it was her sister who taught her the ins and outs of the kitchen.

Levin is a lover of South and Central American flavour. Photo: Supplied

“Nowadays when we do family Christmas mom is the sous chef, and me and my sister steer the ship.”

Food has been crucial to creating quality family memories in her life. Levin remembers her childhood picking mussels on the shores of Natures Valley with her “Granny Nibs”. “When you’re a kid running around there it is like a dream,” she says.

Granny Nibs was also a ferocious baker, she recalls. “I think every chef has a gran who could cook,” she giggles.

“She was really great at making pastries and all those classic granny things like cakes. When you’re a kid you always want to be at the table with the sweets.”

Levin attended the Westerford High School in Cape Town. She completed her culinary education at the Silwood School of Cookery in 2009. A year later she enrolled to the University of Cape Town and obtained her degree in journalism and economics in 2014.

“My parents have always been supportive and taught us to be self-reliant and driven. I think if I had gone back and done it again, I would study nutrition, but a business degree of some sorts was a good foundation for me running my business down the line.”

‘I am no Pablo Escobar’

The Culinary Cartel offers bespoke dining experiences with foods that are ethically and consciously sourced. So no, it is not a cartel in the context of Pablo Escobar or abalone smuggling, she clarifies. Loosely defined, the word cartel means a coalition of people with mutual interests.

“It played nicely on alliteration and with the word ‘culinary’. We are a collective of ‘bad ass chefs,’ we are not going to murder you. It just has a cool ring and bit of an edge,” she says.

‘People have always been respectful of me and my job. I think if I had been in a restaurant kitchen it might have been more of a debacle.’

Levin’s operation works with a rotation of 20 chefs in Cape Town who offer their services to an elite clientele in the city. “I work with people you would know but I couldn’t name. Like celebrities and people on the Forbes list,” she says.

When asked why she opted to venture off on her own, Levin responds:

“The professional kitchen is awash with subtle sexism and can be quite the ‘boy’s world’.

Chef Jess Levin. Photo: Facebook

“Being a woman has never held me back. I am not by any means meek,” she says sternly.

“People can be quite harsh (in the professional kitchen). The ‘bro-mentality’ holds a lot of females back.

“From that aspect I think if I was in the industry it would frustrate me. I love pastry but it doesn’t mean just because I am a girl, I want to work in the pastry section. Maybe I want to work on the grill, maybe I want to be a head chef?”

The upside, though, is that “the industry is changing pretty fast; I think they’re making it pretty inclusive to female chefs than ever before.

“People have always been respectful of me and my job.”

“I think if I had been in a restaurant kitchen it might have been more of a debacle.

“Most of the people I employ are guys. we treat each other as equals, they treat me with respect as their head chef. I think I have just always been lucky enough to just work with really forward-thinking people.”

The culinary world is vast, she says. Levin advises young chefs and home cooks to think big. “Chefing is not the end.”

“It is not about working 16 or 17 hours a day. The food industry is exploding, and I think it’s just going to become more interesting. Trust your gut and find the niche that is going to work for you,” she says.

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