It is no secret that the impact of Covid-19 disruptions nearly decimated the global hospitality industry.
Lockdown and restrictive regulations proved true the adage, “only the strong will survive,” as it was unrelentless in its grip of the restaurant industry.
Like many chefs in the country, Siyabonga Ngwenya (27) had no choice but to “shake it off,” and turned to innovation to rescue his life-long dreams of being a chef.
Pre-Covid-19 he was a chef at the FNB Merchant Place in Sandton. He was retrenched due to the pandemic disruption.
The Soweto-born chef tells Food For Mzansi, “I could not sit around and not do anything, living my life without a salary.
“We had to stop going to work, but we were actually getting paid even for sitting at home. I think they realised it was a waste on their side because they were just paying people without having them physically working, they had to stop everything.”
This prompted him to bring his own culinary venture to life through a business he proudly calls the Yummy Thingz eatery in Rockville.
“I started cooking from my place and people would come and collect their orders or I would find a way to deliver their meals to them, I managed to save up and start my eatery.”
‘After realising that I wanted to stop dancing I had to choose between following my dreams in media and the culinary arts.’
Real men do cook
Growing up in Soweto Ngwenya recalls that he had always had an interest in cooking. His mother, Maria, was an avid cook but rarely allowed him to assist her in the kitchen.
“I used to enjoy watching her cook, I always tried to get into the kitchen and help her out, but she used to chase me out and tell me cooking is not a thing for boys, and that I am still young.”
Visits to his late aunt, Poppy Mfeka, are memories he cherishes to this day. “I can basically say she is my inspiration. She was a pastry chef, so I used to eat a lot of nice desserts, I guess she influenced me.”
Before he realised his culinary dreams, he had aspirations of becoming an entertainer. While attending the Phafogang Secondary School, he joined a professional hip-hop dancing crew, called the Reptiles, that he started with his friends.
“In high school I played a lot of sports, I was very active. Once upon a time I was watching You Got Served with my friends.
“We used to try and imitate the dance sequences and my interest just grew from there. We started dancing and choreographing our own dance moves.”
Ngwenya danced for eight years before he heeded the call to the kitchen and decided to enrol to the HTA school of culinary art in 2013.
“After realising that I wanted to stop dancing I had to choose between following my dreams in media and the culinary arts. Then I realized I had a love for cooking, so I chose to go with my heart.
“Dancing was getting too much – I was part of a dance crew and we used to tour a lot. I felt like I was losing focus career wise, it was becoming too much.”
‘South African food is diverse, we have a lot to offer the world.’
His fondest kitchen memories only came later while attending culinary school.
He says, “I discovered that I am actually a food creative. I would see meals and make them my own adding a personal twist, I would look at the ingredients and be inspired to make something unique and beautiful.
Dreams pay off
The young gun is most proud of his stint on season six of the Ultimate Braai Master. “The exposure has been the best highlight in my career so far.”
Ngwenya started his business under lockdown and ran operations from his home in Soweto. It grew and he found himself in a position where he had no choice but to expand operations.
“I realised it was growing too quickly and it was getting to a point where it was too much for me to handle on my own, so I was like, okay I need more space; I need equipment and I need staff. I started looking for places I could use as a venue around Rockville.”
He hopes the future will bless him with a chain of Yummy Thingz eateries throughout the country.
“I want to grow my eatery; I hope I can see an eatery in different provinces. I am working on releasing a cookbook and my own cooking show. I also want to teach the young ones; the big dream is to groom other young children.”
His advice to young chefs and home cooks is simple: live your truth and own it.
“Be as original as possible. Explore local ingredients. South African food is diverse, we have a lot to offer the world. We have so many cultures and all those cultures have different cuisines that the world needs to know about.”