Chef Zanele Van Zyl (39) is a well-known influencer in the South African culinary world. Coming from an impoverished background, van Zyl rose above her circumstances. Today, she is a cook book author and hosts cooking classes across the country with plans to expand it around the globe.
Born in a small town called Bergville in the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, Van Zyl is one of seven children – she has five sisters and one brother. She first found herself at the stove when she was only 12 years old and it has continued to become her lifelong career. To this day, Van Zyl remembers how the smell of her mother’s food travelled throughout their home followed by the warmth of the pot.
“I always loved cooking. And helping my mom in the kitchen was always what we did with my sisters growing up. Winter days when my mom would make fire in the rondavel cooking some kidney beans and bone marrow. The aroma from the pot made the home warm.”
In 1999 Van Zyl matriculated from Ekwuseni High School. She continued to do two Information Technology (IT) short courses at Boston College and obtained a diploma in IT from the University of the Witwatersrand.
However, Van Zyl ended up choosing food over computers. In 2016 she completed a diploma in cooking and food preparation at Capsicum Culinary Studio. The kitchen has always given her a rush, and now she gets to share it with others through the cooking classes that she offers. Although Van Zyl loves what she does, she says it can become quite demanding.
“The demanding part [of what I do] is when I have to go to other provinces for my cooking classes, leaving my family behind.”
As much as she is open to sharing her cooking skills with others, Van Zyl is quite private when it comes to her personal life. She has, however, been married for 14 years and has two daughters.
“I call my family a rainbow nation as we are all different races, though we don’t see colour anymore. We are a small loving family. We love hosting people – or should I say my husband loves hosting on my behalf, so I can cook.”
From her favourite food to what she enjoys most about her cooking classes, Van Zyl did share a few pointers about herself that we might not know.
“I love Indian cuisine. Bunny chow, mutton biryani and curry are my favourites. I love meeting new people and I enjoy my cooking classes, because it gives me a chance to meet new people. I come from a very poor background. I love doing everything at my own pace, though I like being challenged.”
In October 2018, Van Zyl self-published her first cook book, Cooking with Zanele: Simply Delicious Quick Meals. She says the book is based on a cooking class.
“It’s catered for everyone. My dishes are known to be simple and fast to prepare.”
Each day as she takes a step closer to her future, Van Zyl motivates herself to become a better person. Besides that, she is working towards growing her brand outside of South Africa with her cooking classes and one day her own kitchen.