South Africa is an exporter of great quality products. And not just in sport, music, film and the wine industry, but also chefs. Wandile Mabija, 24, has joined the list of our chef exports.
Born in Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape, Mabija graduated from the Capsicum Culinary Studio in Port Elizabeth and is now a chef at the Fairmont Austin Hotel in Texas.
Growing up, Mabija had been a very creative and inquisitive child, and he used to try many different things.
Believe it or not, he was a DJ once. “I explored the dream of becoming a DJ to the point that I even bought a full set of equipment to pursue that career,” he said in an e-mail from Texas.
“I used to play at functions such as weddings, birthday parties, gala dinners and funerals on weekends because my mother owned an event equipment hiring company and it was relatively easy to get jobs through that channel.
“My weekend nights were spent in nightclubs or at house parties and even though I was good at working the turntables and making money out of it, deep down I knew it wasn’t my passion, so I started exploring other avenues,” Mabija said.
And that’s when the food bug bit.
“My culinary journey started when I was in high school. I used to watch many cooking shows and I was fascinated by the creative dishes the chefs on TV made.
“My mother was also an influence; she ran a household without gender roles and everyone, from my older brother to my younger sister knew how to cook, clean and do other household chores,” said Mabija.
“She was also very creative with her cooking, experimenting with different ingredients in each dish she made, and soon I followed suit.
“I started cooking relatively normal dishes, but as time went by and I became more confident in my abilities, I started experimenting more, mixing different flavours and trying out new ingredients in the dishes I made. That was when the dream was born,” he added.
Before venturing into the culinary field, Mabija was a marketing student undertaking commercial studies and had dreamed of being a businessman and following in his father’s footsteps.
“I was scared of going into the culinary field when I finished school. My mother used to ask me all the time why I did not just go for it.
“During my first year in marketing, there was an open day at Capsicum Culinary Studio in Port Elizabeth. They were so professional and good at what they were doing, I fell in love with their kitchen and I decided that day that this was what I wanted to do and I applied the same day,” said Mabija.
Explaining how he got the opportunity to cook up a storm in Texas, Mabija, who graduated with a diploma in cooking and food preparation from Capsicum, applied at a travel agency called OVC and they helped him get the job and made sure everything was done to perfection, from visa applications to accommodation.
Moving to the US, especially to a southern state, was a culture shock, more so in relation to the food.
“The food scene is really different in Texas, there’s so much that happens here,” Mabija said. However, he has allowed that culture shock to influence his style of cooking.
“Texas has its own cultural mix, different to that back home, and that is a great influencer because my creative mind is unleashed to explore many different cuisines.
“What I love most about Texas are their barbecues. They have the best braais I have ever tasted and the food here is so diverse, I love it. I am in wonderland here and no two days are the same.
“Texans love their food. Their food portions are much larger than back home and they give you value for your money.
“I also love trying out their food trucks because I know I will be satisfied after a meal.”
Mabija does miss home, though, and thinks our food culture is responsible for the chef he is. “South Africa is home and nothing can take that away; it shaped me into who I am.”
Having explored the food scene in his adopted home, he has found that there’s a big part of Mexico in Texan cuisine, which makes sense as the state is the closest to the Mexican border.
“Texan food has close ties to Mexico.The two most popular types of food here are the Texas BBQ and tacos. They are not big on seven colours like back home. It’s a very different food scene from what I am used to, but I must say that I love both cultures,” he said.
Mabija said there were a few South African dishes that he really missed, like tripe and trotters, chakalaka, pap, South African dumplings and Umvubo (crumbly pap with sour milk).
As much as he would like to introduce some of the South African dishes in Texas, it would be difficult to get the ingredients.