JOHANNESBURG - Transforming basic cooking into an exciting art form is the language of Chef Nono.
Be different – very different. Ulundi-born Chef Nono Mtshali has achieved just that, mastering the art of “people’s cookery” with a unique style and panache of her own.
We are privy to one of her fine dining cookery demos at the International Hotel School in Westville where she is taking her audience through the steps of making a celebration stuffed fillet and a traditional Italian paella, rice seafood and all the bits and pieces that go with it.
While there are some in the audience that seem a little bit uneasy about the idea of using lobsters, king prawns and mussels in their repertoire, Chef Non reassures them that the taste will be in her words “magnificent” and not to be missed.
“I look to push the boundaries a bit in my cooking classes,” she explains during a break in her demo.
“Unless people experiment with different foods, they will never enable to master new skills. And that’s really what it is all about – putting the traditional recipes we all knew as children them to one side – and trying something entirely new.”
At 29, Chef Nono is becoming a popular figure in the South African culinary industry, well known for her no-nonsense approach to cooking and the belief that everyone has the capability of being a good cook – as long as they learn the basics and are prepared to be adventurous.
“Look not every dish you cook will be perfect the first time, but that’s how you learn. Beginners often believe that adding more of an ingredient than the recipe states will make it taste better, but often it’s about less is best. Cookery is about being gentle with food and sensitive to how different ingredients react. Too much lemon for example can ruin a great dish. That goes for too much sugar or too much chilli. It’s all about balance.”
Empowering women – and men if they choose - to master mouth-watering recipes is she says, the driving force behind her cookery mission. She prefers to develop, research and try out the recipes herself rather than being a chef, say in a large restaurant.
“At least I know that what I am preparing and cooking, and the ingredients I am using, is something that I am absolutely happy with. That’s important to me. Even though I am what you call a private chef, I always have assistant chefs who I have trained from scratch. They do all the chopping and preparation which means that I have more time to interact with the audience. It’s the comments and questions from the people watching the demo that are so valuable. At the same time my assistants are learning new skills and that’s great, because they too are starting out on a new career.”
The Private Chef status, Chef Nono explains, means that she is the only one who does the cooking.
“I like to think that I must be the one to bring my own individual ideas and special touches to a dish to make it creative. “It’s a bit like painting. You can’t have anyone else doing the brush strokes.”
Born and raised in the multi-cultural town of Ulundi near the mythological “Valley of the Kings” Chef Nono is proud of her rich Zulu heritage and the strong family ties that inspired her to cook from an early age.
“I had an aunt that encouraged me to cook even when I was very little. Growing up my aunt used to say, I will do the breakfast and lunch while you are at school, but I am putting you in charge of the evening meal. I felt quite important and I tried all sorts of different dishes, using the herbs and vegetables we grew in the garden. It was the best learning space. If my family liked my dishes they would tell me. And if they didn’t they would also tell me.”
When school days came to an end, it was time to make some grown up decisions about her life and future.
“I had always been interested in reading and languages and decided that I would come to Durban to study linguistics. Because I was staying on my own in res, it meant cooking for myself in the evening. It became a huge interest for me and realised that the one thing I really wanted to be once I had obtained my linguistics degree, was a Chef.”
While some dreams never come to fruition, this one did. After gaining her degree, she created her own Facebook page, highlighting some of her own favourite recipes and how to make her dishes.
“I got so much positive feedback that I enrolled with the Capsicum Culinary Studio in Durban to study for a diploma in Food Preparation and Cooking.”
Then came to question, how could she turn her passion for cookery into a business opportunity.
“With the strong Facebook presence I had built up I started offering lunch and party platters, photographing them, on my Facebook page. People then asked if I did cooking classes. I asked myself why not?”
The upshot of that idea is a bustling cookery teaching business that takes her the length and breadth of South Africa, where introducing her mostly women clientele to the joys and fun of fine dining, has become a “hectic but exciting” way of life.
But like most people who dream big, Chef Nono has some bucket list items that keep her inspirational journey always on the move.
“My dream is to one day have my own kitchen studio where I can conduct my own cooking classes. Yes, a cookbook is also there. I’d also like to have my own brand of kitchen ware and travel overseas gaining more knowledge and using my linguistic skills.”
Chef Nono manages to work as a Freelance Language reviewer for Google and is keen on the idea of becoming a Food Editor.
“Food is exciting. It’s the universal language of togetherness and friendship. That’s what I love!”