With her ever-present smile and obvious skill in the kitchen, Siphokazi Mdlankomo stole Mzansi’s heart on M-Net’s MasterChef series. While working her way towards becoming the competition’s runner-up, she wowed the judges with each hearty home-cooked dish. But before she became a culinary star, she was just a village girl who loved to farm and bake.
Hailing from the Eastern Cape, Mdlankomo learned her first kitchen tricks from her mother and grandmother. The family home in Tsolo, nearly 600km from the provincial hub of Gqeberha, was filled with love.
Granny Abigail taught her to find joy in life skills such as cleaning, cooking and even farming. But she was most inspired by her mother, Nonkululeko. “She was the only woman at the time who knew how to bake scones using fire outside of the house. She would bake these for location ceremonies and was also good at making garments from her own sewing machine.”
Mdlankomo set off to a tertiary institution in 1994, but returned before long with a bun in the oven. The 19-year-old gave birth to son Buchule and then went to seek greener pastures in Camps Bay. She found it at a guesthouse, and still remembers the wonder of receiving her first pay cheque.
”Imagine a village girl, who has never been elsewhere, now travelling alone to Cape Town… in seven days I got paid R700.”
“That was a lot of money back then and I asked sis Fezeka, whom I was working with at the time, to accompany me to Kwa Langa. I bought some baby clothes and sent them, along with the money, [back home by] bus.”
Culinary roots take shape
A mere two weeks later, she became a jack of more trades when she secured another job as domestic worker in Bantry Bay. She soon grew close to the family matriarch, Mary, whom she fondly called Granny.
Her brief stint there – and the prospect of going on an all-expenses-paid au pair trip to look after Mary’s grandchildren in Canada – abruptly ended when Granny passed away.
Mdlankomo moved out and found work in Newlands, in the home of Elizabeth Andreasen. A friendship took shape, but also a new-found love for food.
“I loved watching cooking shows on television. [Elizabeth] saw that, and [she saw] me trying those dishes in her kitchen.”
Although the duo had a tumultuous relationship, they became like sisters. “Like any other friends or siblings, we had our good and bad days. One thing I loved about Liz, was that whenever we had a misunderstanding, she would come from work, stand in front of the kitchen and say, ‘You know what, I don’t want to fight today.’ My good mood would be activated.
”My relationship with Liz grew for the best each day.”
From suburban kitchen to TV screen
It wasn’t long before Mdlankomo found herself on one of her beloved TV shows. She is a self-professed super fan of the international series MasterChef. When entries opened for the South African spinoff, she entered without thinking twice.
”After my first audition, everyone was blown away and I was put through to the hot auditions. I got an apron right there, and that gave me more confidence.”
Then came the gruelling “boot camp”.
”Boot camp wasn’t an easy step. I met different people with different personalities and different cultures and I had to adapt to that very fast.”
She made it through unscathed and became one of the top twelve finalists to cook in the MasterChef kitchen at the Nederburg Wine Estate in Paarl.
Mdlankomo describes herself as a vibrant and dedicated person, but the experience in reality television added a new dimension.
”My journey taught me so much. I realised that if I weren’t working as a domestic worker, I would not have won all those stages. because I was used to cooking and hard work, it made me persevere even more.”
“I always knew that I was confident and capable of doing anything, but there were times when I did not believe in myself.”
A whole new world
In the end she walked away as runner-up of the series. Worried about the next chapter, she felt she had no choice but to return to the Andreasen family home, to work as domestic worker once more.
”While [I was] sitting at home for eight months, hating myself and everyone around me, something magical happened. Shaun Andreasen [Liz’s husband] was working on finding me a deal all along. He surprised me by connecting me with someone at Pick n Pay.”
Mdlankomo became a brand ambassador for the supermarket in 2016 and still is today.
In 2015 she had also scored a book deal with Metz Press Publishers, who printed her cookbook My Little Black Recipe Book.
Her book was the catalyst for her own show on Mzansi Magic, Let’s eat with Siphokazi and the second season was her personal ode to domestic work. She would cook different dishes, feasts of starters and desserts for her guests: domestic workers who came to enjoy her creations. “I had a good time on the show. At some point I thought it was going to last forever.”
Sipho’s second book, titled Hearty Home Food with Sipho, is a labour of love that took two years to write and publish.
”My first book I just wrote for the sake of writing. I didn’t know my target market. My new book is all about me. I poured my heart into it. It has simple [but the] best meals you can cook at home – any season and any time.”
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