In a world where professional kitchens have long been dominated by white males, Dr Anna Trapido believes that it is about high time that black women take up the space.
As we gear up to celebrate National Women’s Day on the 9th of August, Trapido says that professional kitchens are historically hierarchical and labour relations have rarely been in favour of black female representation.
“The politics of gender and race in the kitchen have always been extremely difficult and often abusive.”
Adding fuel to the fire is the covid-19 pandemic, she adds. The hospitality industry has suffered a huge loss due to the global health crisis forcing the industry to shut down prospects of inclusion.
“People are being the worst version of themselves, and everyone is just clinging on by the skin of their teeth.”
Trapido is a trained anthropologist, and chef. Her works have seen her win the World Gourmand Cookbook award three times. She has even baked a birthday cake for rapper and actor Will Smith, a Christmas cake for former president Nelson Mandela and a batch of cranberry scones for former first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
The “old boys” in the industry, who are typically white males, have mountains of insights to offer that should be preserved and passed down to a new generation of black, female chefs, she says.
“Proper restaurant high skill brigade is a beautiful thing. You want young black women in those spaces bringing their perspective to high skilled culinary achievements. You don’t want to say that this is a place for young black women to feel unwelcome.”
A journey spurred by academia
Born in Oxford, England in the 1970’s Trapido says that her journey with the culinary industry only began later in her adult years.
She was born to a family of intellectuals who had a penchant for academia. Her father, revered historian Stanley Trapido, was a professor and freedom fighter, and her mother, Barbra, a well-known novelist. Labelled communists in the Apartheid era, they went on a self-imposed exile to the United Kingdom, where they would lay down roots.
Trapido holds an arsenal of academic accolades. She holds a master’s degree in anthropology from King’s College in Cambridge, England and a PhD in occupational health from the University of the Witwatersand. She is also an alumni of the Prue Leith Culinary Institute, where she later trained as a chef in Pretoria.
‘Things that can seem quite separate can come together.’
The author describes her relationship with food in her youth as one that was purely for sustenance. “My mother cooked nicely, she did it to feed people and not because it was a ‘fun’ thing to do, it didn’t occur to any of us that you could cook professionally,” she explains.
While doing her training in occupational medicine in the former Transkei of the Eastern Cape, Trapido would grow fond of the food stories shared by migrant mineworkers on her examination table.
“Quite often when I am in rural places, I ask questions about food and customs. I know which side of the kraal a woman can’t go. You know, those sorts of things that make people cause offence by mistake.”
Widely revered author
A juggernaut in the industry Trapido holds a total of three World Gourmand Cookbook awards.
“I’m an okay chef,” she says humbly.
Her first book, To the Banqueting house – African cuisine, an Epic journey, was published in 2006 and is an ode to her African roots which depicts local cuisine in a fine dining setting.
Two-years later she added another win on the global stage for her book Hunger for Freedom, which tells the intricate food biography of former President and ANC stalwart Nelson Mandela. Her third win was in 2016, for Eat Ting: Lose weight gain, find yourself, co-authored with dietician Mpho Tshukudu. The book examines the role of culture in the quest for weight loss and health gain.
“I am a much better food writer than I am a chef, in a way I am quite sorry about that, because I would rather it be the other way around,” she openly admits.
Through her work as a food anthropologist she has gained a love and appreciation for indigenous ingredients. The chef lives in Hartbeespoort in the North West with her husband and son, where she is currently in lockdown.
There she has built an edible garden rich with herbs, vegetables and fruit. “I grow things that you can eat. I am not a good gardener; I like things that stay alive.”
“Indigenous foods are suited for this (African) environment, they are much more helpful about staying alive, I think you have to be quite skilled to grow foreign things.”
Women under lockdown
Life under lockdown has been focused on work and cultivating the bonds with her family. “I think I am lucky that I quite like my family. I have not lost much of work. I have always worked from home,” she says.
What has been most concerning is the increased instances of gender-based violence (GBV) cases. This especially as the country is preparing to celebrate Women’s Month. “Being locked up with a family that is not good to you can be terrifyingly awful,” says a concerned Trapido.
She advises young chefs to bare their souls, never emulate their heroes in the industry and be authentically themselves. “What I like is food that is very honest.”
“The best chefs are those who understand who they are and where they are and how things should resonate in their work.”
Cooking is like painting, she adds. “You don’t want to be someone who just colours someone else’s pictures and you don’t want chefs who are mynah birds (just mimicking what they observe).”