Food is an intimate form of art compared to others in its ability to incorporate all the senses, believes Thuto Mahlangu (25).
Chefs are the vehicles in intersecting the two artforms, the art and food enthusiast says. “Food is art and art is food. In cooking, art becomes the by-product in the pursuit of nutrition and deliciousness.”
Mahlangu was born in Johannesburg but raised in the North West town of Taung, where she spent most of her life. Her cooking passions began young and stemmed from duty to her gender role as a woman, she explains.
“It was a thing where I was told ‘you’re a girl you are supposed to know how to cook’. It started as a life skill I had to learn and then I fell in love with it and realized you can really play around with food. You can have fun and at home people are satisfied and happy,” Mahlangu says.
As her relationship with food grew it morphed into passion. Mahlangu soon realized the power of food in creative expression.
“I started looking at it as not just a plate of food but art on a plate. I’m a very creative person so for me it was another creative outlet.”
In 2019 she pursued her culinary arts diploma from the International Hotel School in Johannesburg. Later she spent six months as a commis chef, training for her practicals at the Capital on the Park hotel in Sandton.
In 2020 she landed a job as a line cook with Sun International and later registered a business offering private chef’s services in and around Johannesburg.
Time, energy, and sacrifice maketh the chef
Mahlangu believes that without passion and an undying love for cooking, the industry, and all that comes with it, make it impossible for a young chef to find fulfilment.
“Most of your time is committed to the food and restaurant before anything else. Taste, educate yourself, hone your skill and don’t give your opinion unless it’s asked for,” she says.
Before venturing into the professional kitchen, Mahlangu had aspirations of pursuing a career in communication sciences.
‘I’ve always had a passion for food and the arts.’
“I tried the varsity thing but that was not for me, so we finally decided to give the chefing thing a try.”
Last year she enrolled to the International Hotel School (IHS) in Johannesburg where she obtained her qualifications in the culinary arts.
Today, she works as a line cook for Sun International and runs her own private chef’s business on the side.
“I do private dining experiences for groups of no more than 30 patrons in their homes.”
With only a year in practice, never did she imagine the curveball that covid-19 would throw her. She had only just begun her journey in the professional kitchen when the global pandemic brought the world to a standstill.
“Covid-19 was a knock. It was very difficult; I will not lie. There was a lot lost for me in terms of business and working hours. Since level four things have gotten better. At work there are obviously certain hygiene protocols in place that we also follow as chefs.”
Mahlangu admits that she does not come from a very food adventurous family. Her mother, Ellen Mahlangu, was set in her ways, cooking simplistic, wholesome foods.
“My mother likes to cook specific things, and I get bored easily. Using Google and Pinterest, I picked up on a few tricks and started trying out new things.”
Her breakthrough came in 2015 when her aunt asked her to take charge of the Christmas lunch spread that year. “She is not so great with the pots,” Mahlangu giggles.
‘The industry is tough, it’s not for people who crumble the moment they are pressured.’
“The reception to my food was amazing, the kitchen was full of laughter, love, warmth. Everyone enjoyed the food, and the best part of the experience was sharing something that I loved doing with my loved ones, and them embracing my skills. “
While she may be new to the industry Mahlangu has had her fair share of lessons in the kitchen.
“The industry is tough. I think the most important thing is to always be prepared and always be ready to improvise. It’s very hectic; it’s not for people who crumble the moment they are pressured.”
You need grit and thick skin, she emphasizes. “People think a chef’s life is only about cooking, but there is so much more behind it. It’s a lot of intensive labour that goes into those dishes on a restaurant menu.”
‘Black women work twice as hard, but I am willing’
In the professional kitchen, racial factionalism is still a factor, she believes.
“There is a bit of segregation in the kitchen, senior chefs also tend to be very selective of who they work closely with.”
However, she is determined to be seen and heard and holds firm to her culinary dream. “I love what I do. I push hard. Every day”
“As a black woman, you really have to work twice as hard. I am here to prove that I am as deserving as everyone else in this field.
Her recipe for success in the industry is simple. “Clean spaces and surfaces, and of course preparation.”
Mahlangu has future plans in motion to register her own company, and to secure a partnership with a well-known beverage company.
“I am praying,” she confesses.
She has also set her sights on the savoury cannabis edibles market.
“We are opening up to the edible side of life as South Africans. When people think of edibles they think of confectionaries. I would like to incorporate cannabis into more savoury food.
“I have been experimenting with my brother. There is this cannabis butter that I make. I love butter. I think it adds some flavour depth to food.
“Let’s say I am pan frying a pork chop, I would usually use cannabis butter. Or I am baking bread, when the recipe needs butter I will incorporate the cannabis butter.”
She advises young chefs and aspirant home cooks to have fun with the dishes they create.
“Food and art go hand in hand, especially with gastronomy taking over the culinary scene. Play around with your ingredients, have fun.
“Cooking is very different from baking, if you mess up a recipe you can fix it somewhere somehow. So have fun. Explore, even if its unconventional, sometimes a mistake can turn out to be a happy mistake,” she says.