Award-winning chef forged in the kitchen of life

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Oct 12, 2019

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Durban - “I was speechless.”

That was chef Siphephelo Mtshali’s reaction when he won the Unilever Chef of the Year award recently.

Chef Sphe, as he’s known to his brigade at Vigour and Verve in Durban’s Elangeni and Maharani Hotel, grew up in Madadeni in Newcastle and learnt his love of food from his grandmother’s cooking.

He, his sister and late younger brother would visit her in Johannesburg, where she was a domestic worker.

“I remember the exotic fragrances, and things I had never smelt before,” he said.

“Growing up, no one spoke of being a chef. It certainly never crossed my mind. Being a doctor or all those fancy jobs, that’s what everyone thinks about.

“In fact, when I enrolled in hospitality at DUT I thought it had something to do with hospitals,” he laughed.

“But I fell in love with cooking. I would do functions and found I was good at it.”

Stints followed in the kitchens at the Cape Grace and under chef Preggie Naidoo at Durban’s Hilton Hotel until a health problem in 2011 forced him to give it up.

“I was recovering in Osizweni, watching people going to work, and thought I have to get back into it.”

Determined, Mtshali borrowed R400 from a friend and came to Durban. He had no job and nowhere to stay.

“I got casual work and would leave my clothes in my locker and sleep on benches at the Workshop. My friend Thami from uMlazi took me in until I could earn enough for my own place.”

But his skills in the kitchen soon did the talking, with stints at the Hilton and Beluga, where his creation was a butternut pannacotta with rooibos tea glaze, and finally for the opening of Vigour and Verve.

“I have met some inspired chefs. They brought me up to where I am now. They believed in me,” Mtshali said.

His Unilever menu included a “starter with an Asian twist”. It was a puree of roasted cauliflower with stir-fried bok choy, seared salmon, deep-fried leeks and a seafood broth.

“For mains, I wanted to give the judges some Durban flair.”

Chef Sphe created a tea-smoked chicken breast with potato croquette, mushroom duxelle tortellini, glazed carrots and a chakalaka puree with chicken jus.

Dessert was a “mistake that turned out great”.

“I like to play in the kitchen and one day forgot the beetroot foam in the freezer. So I tried it with some berries preserved in white wine, and it worked.”

So, for the man who admits “me and flour are not the best of friends”, the winning dessert was a lemon and white chocolate mousse on a crushed homemade ginger biscuit base with berries and beetroot foam.

His long-term dream is to run his own kitchen, with fine dining flair where everything would be seasonal and fresh and where every dish has a story in its flavours.

“It’s a conversation between chef and ingredient and sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to what the ingredient says.”

Mtshali also wants youngsters to take up cheffing as a career.

“Go for what it is you want to do,” is his advice. “It shouldn’t be a fall-back position. Chefs are the doctors of food, doctors for the stomach.”

He laughed again before giving a quote from the movie Ratatouille: “Everyone can cook, but only the fearless become chefs.”

For the man who is recognised as one of the country’s best, he still relishes coming home to Newcastle, where his grandmother cooks his favourite dish - steamed bread with sugar beans and amathambo (beef bones).

“The bones always have quite a bit of meat on them,” Mtshali said.

The Independent on Saturday

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