For Hope Matshepo Matlala, known as Chef Hope, there are many reasons to be hopeful these days. Since starting her chef’s journey, Matlala had faced some serious setbacks. Now, her very own juice brand is finding its way into local stores.
Called “Sup-Maphodi”, the juice comes in eight flavours. “The juice was supposed to be called ‘Sap-Maphodi’, like the Afrikaans word for juice. But there was a typo, and since each juice has its own greeting, I left it as is,” says Matlala.
Born in Soweto in Gauteng, Chef Hope has always loved cooking. In 2002, she decided to follow her passion and take a course in hospitality management, but she was unable to get the certificate due to financial constraints.
Her return to the food industry would be years later, in 2015, through a television show called Clover’s Little Big Cook Off.
“It was through my son that I realised that I needed to do what I was passionate about. He was interviewed [on Little Big Cook Off], and he talked about how food is my passion. I asked myself, ‘What will I be teaching my son if I stay in that job?’”. At the time, Matlala was working as a dispatcher at the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Her son’s comments were exactly what she needed to reignite her passion for her craft. She decided to start her own restaurant, calling it Team Joy, after their team’s name on the show. The restaurant, based in Gauteng, was opened in March 2017 and by July 2017, she was able to resign from SAPS.
“God, I love food. Food is my world, my life. Being able to create something from what you see in the garden… you bring it to a table and enhance [it]. Whether it’s a potato, whether it’s some spinach, or any raw material from the farms; you’re able to play around with it and come out with something.”
Matlala says that her focus at Team Joy was to provide people with healthier, tastier take-away options. She always tried varying the menu, and often she would let her instinctual talent for food take over.
“Sometimes I’m not consistent with cooking. You know, I’ll be cooking something for you today, then you ask me to cook the same thing tomorrow and tomorrow it will be [changed] because I didn’t write down the recipe. I used to call myself a freestyle chef because I will cook whatever comes. Whatever you give me, I’ll make it a meal.”
Journey into agro-processing
Team Joy was not the only project Matlala was working on. Between going out to train people, moderating and facilitating at various hospitality venues, she was kept pretty busy. This means that she needed to depend on others to take care of her restaurant. She cites this as some of the reasons for the restaurant closing in 2019.
“I saw my mistake there because I didn’t give it 100%. You know, I was trusting the wrong people with taking care of my restaurant while I was busy. Also, I was doing some other things on the side.”
After the restaurant closed, Matlala admits, she experienced some difficult times. Her break, however, came in the form of agro-processing. Someone with whom she had worked on the Little Big Cook Off show asked her if she was interested in doing branding for a juice brand.
She accepted the offer, but being a chef at heart, she decided that she needed to be involved in the agro-processing part of the business as well. That is when she went into business for herself.
“I didn’t know where to start. Eventually, I ended up on Gumtree and met someone called Fred. I called him Old Man Fred,” she laughs. Old Man Fred, whose last name Matlala never had the chance to learn, taught her a lot about agro-processing and juice making. “You know the R500 grant the government provided at the start of the pandemic? I used that to start my business.”
Fishing from a new spot
Some of the Sup-Maphodi flavours include orange, litchi, mango, guava and seven fruits. Matlala says that the recent shortages in mango and guava forced her to discontinue these flavours until the fruits were available again. She says that, if she had the right financing, she would have been able to weather the shortages.
“So, if I had funds, I would have had enough storage, like a walk-in freezer and fridge. [I could] buy things in bulk and freeze them or keep them in the freezer, so that I don’t run out of the material, you know? So, the most challenging thing is the finance. Because finance covers everything.”
For Matlala, working as an agro-processor still feeds into her passion for being a chef. “To me, I feel like I’m not yet out of the world of [being a chef], you know? It’s just that I’ve changed spots. Like they say when you fish, if you don’t catch fish from that pond, then you don’t have to leave. [You just have to move] to another spot. That’s where I am. I’m currently at another spot.”