Chef Benny: an executive of note

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Chef Benny Masekwameng, cooking up a storm in the kitchen at Suncoast Hotel and Towers. Picture: Zanele Zulu

If there’s one thing he realised during his stint as judge on the first South African Masterchef series, it’s that you can and should pursue your dream.

Yet food doesn’t feature in popular judge Benny Masekwameng’s dream.

“I absolutely love music,” he says with that disarming smile of his. What he has been reminded of is that he should follow that dream. “I’m always listening to music,” he says. “I cannot play a musical instrument, but I can pick up the rhythms and I want to produce.” So don’t be surprised when a few years down the line you hear that he’s moved into the music world.

If it’s production, it has to be hip hop, says Benny, and he doesn’t care if he doesn’t make bags of money. This is his passion, and perhaps more than anything Masterchef will allow him – as well as the contestants – to follow dreams.

In the meantime, he’s still firmly part of the kitchen. For the moment, even if we are still watching the first series of Masterchef, they have finished filming. His head is already spinning about the second series and they’re in negotiations.

Being in front of the camera is something Benny wanted to do. “I would think about having my own show,” he says. He didn’t think it would happen this way and is surprised by the adulation and his popularity. “I kept reminding myself that I am a chef and not an actor,” he says, and that probably explains why he is such a natural.

Being the diplomat he obviously is, he is not going to diss his fellow judges and he is adamant that he, Pete Goffe-Wood and Andrew Atkinson hit it off from the start. “We connected,” he says, knowing full well that they will probably have to work together for a few more seasons. But he has been this season’s star and you just have to ask around to hear how viewers feel about the chef who seems to be most comfortable in his skin.

They were all put through many tests and auditions before selection, and even though Benny is a Tsogo Sun chef and it is one of the sponsors, the Masterchef producers were under no obligation to employ one of the sponsor’s chefs. “That’s a good thing,” says Benny. “We have to make it on our own merit.”

What they were most interested in was what the judges would be looking for in a Masterchef winner, SA food trends and how each individual would come across.

SA food is one of Benny’s touchstones and something he feels strongly about. “We need to promote our own food,” he says. “There’s such a rich history out there.”

He notes that he’s travelled the world and done the French cuisine bit and everything required of a master chef, but when visitors come to this country they want to eat local food, not sample the way we do French or Italian food.

That is another of his dreams. If he was given the chance to make his own TV programme, it would concentrate on local food. “I will travel from dorpie to dorpie and find that dish that everyone loves and get those people to share their secrets,” he says. Then he would return to the studio with that same dish, give it his own contemporary twist and hopefully in that way contribute to a stronger local cuisine.

He also wants to give back to the people. “I was given many chances along the way,” he says. He knows that the Masterchef season doesn’t make a chef out of anyone, but they can possibly spot some of those contestants that go out in the earlier rounds and give them a chance to take hold of their dream. It is about learning the basics then allowing people to grab hold of something and opening doors.

Benny, who grew up in Alexandra and first got to grips with food in his mom’s kitchen, studied catering management at Natal Technikon before working for a few years at the Hilton in Durban, where he met his wife – also a chef. She works at Southern Sun Hyde Park, not in the kitchen any longer, but she’s the one who cooks 95 percent of the time at home.

At present what dominates his mind and cleaves most strongly to his heart is his 12-week-old daughter. “I’m often away,” he says, but when he’s home, he’s all over her. “When she’s sleeping, I’m the one who wonders why it takes so long before she wakes up.” With two chefs ruling this little one’s heart, chances are she might run in the other direction and Benny is fine with what his heart’s desire wants in life. All he can say at the moment about his baby daughter is that “she’s cool!”

Starting out on Masterchef, Benny was the executive chef at Tsogo Sun’s MondoVino Restaurant, situated on the square close to the Teatro. This is where the winning chef will spend two years running the restaurant. In the meantime, Benny has become a kind of roving chef for Tsogo Sun as he promotes the brand as well as the TV series.

Tsogo Sun has grabbed the opportunity to add some spunk to its food. “We want to make food and cooking fashionable again,” says Benny. When he has to make food choices, he finds he turns to seafood. His many years spent at the coast has turned Durban into his second home, and I suspect when he wants to tune out you’ll catch him listening to music.

He talks excitedly about Masterchef and loves all the questions flung his way. He praises chef Arnold Tanzer, the culinary director for Masterchef. “The challenges, for example, are tailormade so that the contestants are challenged but also learn,” says Benny. “It will prepare and equip the eventual winner for the future.”

He knows that the winner has much to learn, but all of that is a process. Turning his mind to this week’s Zanzibar challenge, he believes the girls got it right because of Khaya’s blood, sweat and tears with the sugar cane, as well as Lungile, Manisha and Ilse’s selling prowess. “They had to sell the food and that’s what counted in the end.”

The winner? Of course he’s not saying. But it is all about riding that wave and how you deal with the challenges. “They have to show courage and confidence,” says Benny, who has all of that wrapped in the biggest and heartiest smile.

If your idea of a Masterchef is the rant of a Gordon Ramsay, think again. Benny Masekwameng is doing it his way – with a smile and an embrace. - Pretoria News

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