Lesego Semenya (37) can easily be mistaken for a wrestler or rugby player with his buff physique. But the only thing this chef is wrestling with is the assumption that men like him can’t possibly prepare exquisite dishes.
The Sowetan-born cook book author and former SA Top Chef judge says the kitchen was never a strange place for him. His parents, who were both teachers, would cook together and involve him and his younger brothers Kagiso and Joy in the process.
Family gatherings are at the centre of what led Semenya to pursue a career in the culinary industry. This is where he discovered his favourite dishes and built a connection to the recipes he prepares today.
“My favourite recipes are the ones that have nostalgia and memories attached to them. Aromas and tastes are all linked to our sentiments and emotions. I love cooking dishes that my mom used to cook like ledombolo (steamed dumpling), mogodu (tripe), samp and beans.”
His constant motivation sets an example for the residents and children of Soweto, to show them what is possible if they continue to chase their dreams and persevere. Semenya says, “There shouldn’t be any shame about where we come from.”
After completing high school in 1999, Semenya studied towards a BCom degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He later did a Grande Diploma in Food and Wine at Prue Leith Chefs Academy.
In 2018, Semenya launched his first cook book Dijo: My Food, My Journey. He also starred as a judge on the Mzansi version of Top Chef South Africa, along with Neill Anthony as co-judge, with Lorna Masego presenting.
His work is his passion and he admits that this can be quite demanding. He is continuing to build his culinary brand LesDaChef, in which his slogan is to take the snobbery (exclusive to only a few) out of food. During weekends and holidays Semenya is at his busiest. “As I work in an industry that literally requires you to use your entire body to get work done, work can be very tiring.”
Semenya has faced many challenges, but he feels the culinary industry isn’t as hard on men as it is on women. A challenge that he often faces is when people are taken aback by his culinary creations, as if they are undermining his cooking and baking skills.
“There’s an assumption that men can’t make dainty things. I make pretty gourmet cupcakes and fancy wedding cakes. People are always shocked to find out that a pretty wedding cake was made by me.”
Away from the kitchen, Semenya enjoys sport, camping, photography and a braai. A much younger Semenya was even the face of a baby food campaign and he captained the rugby team in high school.
Semenya hopes to release his second book within the next two years and he’s been signed to two new television shows. Despite keeping his new endeavours under wraps he boasts that expanding his LesDaChef brand is at the top of his list, with a possible farm in sight.
“I hope to go into product manufacturing and create a range of LesDaChef culinary equipment and products. The end goal is to eventually build a chef school and get into organic farming.”