Cooking: Benny Masekwameng

With his broad, disarming smile and gentle, earnest ways, Benny Masekwameng is one of the brightest stars of MasterChef SA.

Losing “his” restaurant, Mondovino at Montecasino to the contest winner, is a small price to pay because Tsogo Sun’s chef-at-large has become the face of the hospitality group’s restaurants in SA and is riding the crest of immeasurable publicity.

The show is not yet over – for viewers, that is – but talks are already under way to develop a second series. And who knows what the future might hold? Benny hopes to have his own cooking show, travelling from dorp to dorp, getting home cooks to let him in on their secrets and recreating the dishes in the studio. He explains: “I’ve done the traditional thing, using cuts that are not that great, to French cuisine. Our traditional dishes are not getting the attention they deserve. We need to promote our own food – there’s such a rich history out there waiting to be tapped.”

Luck has been on his side, but being a chef is primarily about hard graft and a passion for cooking.

Inspired by his mother, who had a catering business looking after construction workers in Alexandra, he once hoped to study engineering. It took a trip down to Durbs visiting friends to change all that and Benny decided to enroll in a three-year diploma course in catering at Natal Technikon.

A stint at the Hilton followed, then the Elangeni (a Southern Sun hotel), and on to Joburg’s OR Tambo and Mondovino.

He met his wife, Purity, who is also a chef, while studying. She’s subsequently moved to the Hyde Park Tsogo Sun, and while she no longer works in the kitchens, she’s the one to do so at home.

Still, Benny loves to braai (pork is a favourite meat) but being a typical meat-loving South African, the Grill House in Rosebank is his stop-off for steak.

Having international experience, cooking at food festivals, for heads of state, celebrities and royals, has helped, but Benny’s not ashamed of admitting he has less experience than his colleagues on MasterChef, Pete Goffe-Wood and Andrew Atkinson.

The public persona has cost him anonymity and means he’s noticed wherever he goes, but watching his newborn baby, Dimakatso, sleeping angelically is what centres him as a first-time father.

MasterChef has changed his life. “I’m doing a lot of travelling, meeting fans, posing for pictures, signing autographs, seeing more of the (Tsogo Sun) properties, working with different chefs, conducting interviews and spending a lot of time away from my family, especially my little girl.”

Being out of the kitchen does not mean he is any less busy though.

“I talk about food wherever I go, the difference now is that I work with a lot of different chefs in the group, which is always exciting.”

The winner of MasterChef will get the “right to use” Mondovino for two years, sharing profits. The restaurant, on the Piazza at Montecasino, is equipped to the value of R7 million. Tsogo Sun will give a crash course in running it. The rest is up to the individual.

Coinciding with MasterChef, Tsogo Sun’s Wednesday night dinners give viewers the chance to sample the previous night’s challenge meal. Participating Tsogo Sun restaurants in SA will be interpreting the dish and diners will have to judge for themselves.

As Benny enthusiastically puts it: “Tsogo Sun wants to make dining and cooking fashionable again.”

In Joburg, the Hyde Park, Sandton, Montecasino, SunSquare and OR Tambo restaurants will be joining in.

With only five contestants left, time is running out for you to feel part of the action.

But if you don’t get the chance to put them to their own “pressure test”, chances are, there will be another show. And probably another. This one has legs.