For Jean Carlo Ongansie, a Cape Town-born law enforcement official and singer, food is so much bigger than sustenance. It is a way of life. For him, “cooking is an experience. We need food to survive and stay alive. Food can make people happy or sad.”
At the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, just more than a year ago, many people transformed into #lockdownchefs, turning to their kitchens for their sanity.
Inspired by a friend, Ongansie (37) turned into a baker, baking all sorts of goodies that had his friends and family salivating when they saw his posts on social media.
“My friend said, ‘Cook something you could make with your eyes closed and then sell it.’ I thought of scones, and later cakes.”
That moment saw him start his food business, Cooking with Jean Carlo. “People [from across the country] started responding positively and the rest is history. People were happy!”
A road and safety cop by day and a professional singer at night, Ongansie admits he never imagined he would find himself finding joy in his food side-hustle.
“I did not go to culinary school, but it is something that I would love to do, where I can learn more about flavours, pairings.”
Family’s love for food
The youngest of six to parents Leonard and late mother Lilly, Ongansie credits his love for food and cooking to his large family. His mother, a teacher by profession, would often give him the freedom to get creative in the kitchen when she was busy.
“My love for making food started as a child. I just like food. Eating is an experience; I love how it tastes, I love how it looks, I love preparing it.”
Ongansie adds, “I was always a weird one, but it was simple stuff. Life was hectic. My mom would tell me to make something that I found in the fridge and that is where I started experimenting with food,” he says.
His father loves cooking too. “When we have gatherings, everyone has a special dish that they are responsible for. My family sparked my interest in food, and I did not even realise it.”
How Jean became the singing and cooking cop
Ongansie, who was raised in Cape Town, moved to Namibia when he turned five. This country still remains very dear to him although he moved back to Mzansi after matriculating.
It was then that Ongansie became a member of the South African Police Service. In 2017, after many years of service, he resigned from the police and was employed by the Western Cape government as a road safety officer instead.
“I am responsible for road safety awareness and education. I work with schools, and I do educational presentations where we speak about the statistics that we are currently having, and my main focus is to reduce the fatalities on our roads.”
Besides cooking, Jean Carlo is also a singing sensation. At 17, his singing career kicked off when he became the overall winner of The voice of Thyra, a Namibian singing competition. In Mzansi, he was also already a star performer in, among others, Idols on M-Net, Ons soek die sanger on kykNET and even Noot vir noot and Musiek Roulette on SABC2.
“Last year, I released a song called Back to love which was inspired by the lockdown. We are all worried about what is going to happen to us, we all hit rock bottom, the pandemic has affected everyone.”
A highlight in his journey to date has been the influx of orders he receives in his new cooking business. Ongansie says, “Whenever I posted something, people would immediately call me and ask if I am selling those baked goods. That is also where I draw inspiration from, the positive response from people.”
ONGANSIE considers singing foodie J-Something as his ultimate South African food hero.
“He is also a musician, and he cooks just like me, he has reinvented himself in so many ways just like I have,” he says.
Never underestimate the reach of your dreams, Ongansie advises. “Break away from ‘what if?’ I think it is a major curse of humanity to always stress about what if. ‘What if people don’t respond?’ ‘What if they don’t like it?’
“Procrastination is fueled by doubt, I have learned to never underestimate myself. If I still had to think about, ‘what if’ I would have never had the business that I have right now.”
With a little faith and believing in yourself you could achieve your wildest dreams, he adds. “Believe in the product you produce, and stay true to yourself, your identity and you can do amazing and unspeakable things.”