Globe-trotting head chef serves passion on a plate
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Head chef at Signature Restaurant, Mpho Kolokoto, has spent most of his life in the kitchen.
The 40-year-old is shy around people but he is popular when it comes to food.
“I used to stay with my brother and that is where I started cooking. I would cook a lot of traditional foods and after watching several cooking shows, my interest was really piqued.”
His first big food influence was his brother-in-law who worked at the military and cooked for his colleagues. Kolokoto would learn from him by going with him to different events and functions.
Hailing from Mmametlhake in Hammanskraal, Kolokoto went on to hone his skill at the Ga-Rankuwa Hotel School. After completing his training, he was absorbed into Bakgatla Game Reserve.
“They took me in even before I finished my practicals. After that I went on to Sun City to work as a pastry chef for three years and then moved to Cape Town’s Arabella Hotel and Spa. I was there from 2006 and in 2009 I won the Employee of the Year award which gave me the opportunity to get a scholarship from the Swiss Hotel School,” he said.
The scholarship lasted for two years before he came back to Cape Town and moved to Johannesburg soon after.
“Switzerland was an amazing, different experience. The way they make food is more specific to fine dining. My first month there was a little difficult, in the second month I had settled in as the way they speak was similar to Africans. I was supposed to come home after nine months but I got a contract to stay for longer. I stayed for two and a half years.”
At Rosebank’s Crowne Plaza, Kolokoto began working as an executive sous chef.
A sous chef is a chef who is the second in command in a kitchen and holds much responsibility in the kitchen.
Kolokoto was one of the people behind the delicious finger food during South African Fashion Week’s residence there.
From Crowne, Kolokoto moved on to Palala Boutique in Limpopo as an executive chef in 2011. He stayed for four years before moving again, this time to Centurion as the Telkom group executive chef.
In 2017, he got the opportunity to go to Belgium for six months and then another opportunity shortly after that to go to France for two years.
“My experiences overseas showed me that as South Africans, our cooking ability is really good. I was an executive chef in France and they were surprised by my skill. I want South Africans to never downgrade African food. I had to then come back home because of Covid-19,” said the South African Chefs Association member.
He said some of the challenges of working in the industry included changing environments.
“I was 26 when I moved to Cape Town and found myself working in a kitchen where I was the only black chef among about 20 white chefs. I didn’t know anyone, it was very tough. But what kept me going was my hard work. My dishes would come out on top.”
It was earlier this year that Kolokoto had the opportunity to come and work for restaurateur Desmond Mabuza at his Sandton establishment, Signature.
Signature is one of the more popular fine dining restaurants in Johannesburg and has been operational for the past 12 years.
“I came for my interview and he was impressed and gave me the job immediately. This brand is huge. It is my first time working at a restaurant that has more than 120 dishes. Usually there are 50 or less. Almost each day we develop new recipes and Mr Mabuza tastes them, if he likes it, we put it on the menu.”
Kolokoto said they had regular clients who never got bored from the different types of food they served.
“You can go from eating a prawn scallop to a similar dish that may interest you. Being the executive chef is not easy. You man a staff of about 30 people, all with different personalities and cultures. You learn a lot from each person here.”
While Kolokoto can make the options on the menu with his eyes closed, his favourite dish is the beef fillet and mushroom royale.
“It has different flavours on the plate. It’s your fillet, red wine jus, oxtail and cheese balls, mushroom royale, baby marrow, grilled onions and homemade mushroom potatoes. A lot of components on it, yet you get the best.”
When it comes to his tried and tested home dishes, his love for mogodu tops the list.
“I love mogodu (tripe), tlhakwana (cow heels) and nama ya tlhogo (cow head). Every Monday I am off so I make sure to go to Alex and I buy them.”
When he is not working at Signature, he is making food for people through his home food company, Phake Catering.
Kolokoto said the association was trying to educate more people on what it is that chefs can actually do and how they get to the positions they hold.
“They see me as an executive chef, earning money but they do not know where I am coming from. What I suggest is for them to be passionate.
“These days people only see money in the kitchen and it is actually more pressure than it is about money. This industry requires passion, if you don’t have that, you aren’t going anywhere. You must love what you do and know what you do.”
Signature Restaurant is situated at Morningside Shopping Centre.