How the private chef industry is booming in South Africa
Crisp bacon resting atop stacks of golden waffles to be devoured with lashings of warm syrup and butter. Guests wandering about, sipping on slender flutes of orange juice spiked with champagne as they greet new arrivals with a firm handshake or by brushing cheeks.
While the social gathering persists, in the background, somewhere just beyond the brunch spread, a private chef buttoned in a white coat whips together perfectly creamy scrambled eggs and eloquently slices an array of tropical fruits to layer with low fat yogurt and muesli.
The scene above is uncannily similar to how high society gatherings are referenced in pop culture. However, beyond the confines of cinema screens and the pages of novels, in South Africa, the private chef industry is rapidly growing, becoming increasingly popular among businessmen, politicians and influencers who regularly make use of the service.
The role of a private chef is to prepare meals in the kitchens of their clients’ homes, based on their specific needs and preferences. The hiring of a private chef has been popular for some time and remains, on a large scale, reserved for the wealthy.
Featuring on 'Master Chef South Africa' in 2014, Ndumiso Mncwabe, an entrepreneur at Siphenathi Projects, had his career catapulted as a Private Chef after appearing on the show.
What does a private chef offer that a restaurant can't?
As the industry continues to rival restaurant catered events, Mncwabe said he believes the main reason is because: “The affluent love exclusivity and they love being treated with exclusive experiences. Our bar infrastructure, our uniformed staff and most of all our professionalism adds an air of sophistication to functions.”
From birthdays to bridal showers or family dinners, having the option to host from the comfort of your own home provides an intimate backdrop for guests to mingle, something restaurants often miss.
“You have a specially curated menu to suit your occasion, which appeals to your personal taste and you get to be in the company of the person preparing it, nothing beats that experience,” Mncwabe said.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the tailor-made aspect. “Private chefs bring exciting menu options to the table that are specifically designed for you. We always try to get farm fresh veggies, off the boat seafood and the experience of seeing what goes into the final product they get to enjoy on their plate.”
Lungile Nhlanhla, Private Chef at Lungi’s Corner is a full-time Food and Nutrition student who also entered the industry after appearing on the first season of 'MasterChef'.
Her journey in the food industry began as a food editor of DRUM Magazine, thereafter she appeared on television and dabbled in freelancing. While working in food media, she was exposed to the right clients and recognised a gap within the market, spurring her decision to start her own business.
Catering to private and corporate clients, Nhlanhla offers a restaurant experience at home with her signature fusion cooking. “I have a lot of high-end clients who are looking for a fine dining experience that’s intimate, special and different from the norm whilst allowing them to interact and play host.”
Personal chefs develop a strong relationship with their clients and gain an in-depth understanding of the foods that they enjoy most. Over time, they are able to create a unique menu that weaves their client’s food preferences and dietary requirements into their meals.
Garnering a lot of loyal clients, Nhlanhla said, “They are mainly brands, especially for wine and champagne, who require my services for food pairings. My role is then to show their guests how to experience their food and drink together in a new and exciting way.”
As for the challenges of the role, Nhlanhla sees them more as “fun obstacles” to tackle. “This job really requires you to use your imagination and be innovative, creating new menus, experiences and ways of enhancing a brand/product - which is especially tough when you have a repeat client. I enjoy being pushed outside of my comfort zone by colouring outside of the lines and just having fun” she said.
Bringing her own flair to the affair, Nhlanhla loves doing fusion cooking, “Nothing for me is too unconventional - from plating to flavour pairings - it’s a matter of being open to new experiences. For me, food is very personal, if a client tells me after that this was something they’ve truly never tried before, then I have fulfilled my job. I like to keep people guessing and anticipating and wondering, ‘What’s next?’”
Growing up a foodie, Private Chef Joani Mitchell was brought up in a large Portuguese family, where mealtimes were a huge part of her culture, making it easy to connect with her passion for making pretty food that tastes good.
As the “face” of the food, Mitchell said she takes extra care to put together menus with dishes that look as good as they taste. “I do a lot of canapé style eats with various courses.
'I love having different tasting experiences and so really prefer bite-sized portions that make up an 8 or 9 course meal. From a chef’s perspective, it allows me to be creative as each course has to be plated and from an eating angle it allows people to experience loads of different tastes. I tend to do mainly day-time events but the evening meals are definitely more elaborate and experimental.”
For Mitchell, who’s been in the industry for many years, she’s seen the trend take off. “There has been an incredible interest in food, mainly because of TV programs that are now accessible as well as social media.
"Everyone needs to eat and anyone can cook, but the exposure to food stories and journeys have captured people’s interest and now it’s become a bit of an obsession with a lot of people taking pictures of food and posting them on social media.”
How does the service of a private chef differ from that of a catering company or restaurant?
“They each offer very different options. Restaurants are wonderful in that they have a set menu and provide the venue, staffing etc. Catering companies normally offer a pre- prescribed menu and the food is either delivered or collected to a venue.
"A private chef, however, will put together a menu that is suitable to the client, canapés, finger food, seated meals, harvest tables and so on, at either their venue or at the private chef’s venue and additional extras can be added such as entertainment. What I offer is a very personal and exclusive experience in a beautiful setting,” said Mitchell.