Chef Vusi Ndlovu on Playing with Fire and Flavour

Words: Robyn Samuels

Going against the grain has always been in chef Vusi Ndlovu’s nature. It’s that quiet rebellion that’s landed him where he is today. Having worked under culinary icons, Peter Tempelhoff and David Higgs, the talented chef has won global and local accolades and continues to push the boundaries of flavour by highlighting African cuisine.

Chef Vusi Ndlovu at Wolfgat

Defying the old wives tale ‘Don’t play with fire,’ Ndlovu marries tradition with innovation, using the elementary cooking concept to create complex flavours at MLILO. Located at Time Out Market Cape Town, MLILO ‘Fires of Africa’ caters to locals and tourists with flame-grilled African dishes like shisanyama, lamb didi and more.

We chat with Vusi Ndlovu, chef and owner of EDGE Group, about his favourite ingredients, “celebrating the continent and all its bounty” through the African Culinary Library platform, and what sparks inspiration for him. Join the conversation…

Lamb Didi, served with black pepper & citrus sauce at MLILO, Time Out Market Cape Town.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef?

There was no definitive plan, but the point of entry at that time was pretty straightforward.

The hospitality industry can be difficult to navigate. What inspired you to start the African Culinary Library?

The idea came about during COVID, as all great ideas did. We thought while we had time, ‘Why not dig deeper into the African narrative around food and hospitality?’

We wanted to celebrate the continent and all its bounty; we have had many iterations of what this would look like, so it was just a matter of firming it up.

EDGE is known for its creative approach to African cuisine. How do you push innovation while honouring tradition?

This is the hardest bridge to navigate. Africans are very proud of where they come from, so if you say you are going to serve, let’s say, Jollof to someone who grew up with it and to someone who doesn’t know it, the last thing you want to do is serve an idea that is not close to the original. They will come for you!

Our idea is not to ‘pimp’ any dish or fuse any ideas that are not true to that culture or concept. We identify an idea, explore it, and then find a way to package it in a way that’s familiar, interesting and true to the idea.

Left: Chef Vusi Ndlovu | Right: Grilled Fish of the Day with Shito dressing at MLILO, Time Out Market Cape Town.

How do you source inspiration for new dishes?

This has many forms; there is no set plan. The easiest way is [to look to] the ingredients, the people, even a song sometimes. The plan is always to induce an emotion, a good one. With that fixed goal of creating an emotion, it’s easier to get to an end product.

Favourite ingredient at the moment?

Sounds silly, but we are having fun with a lot of salts from across the continent. The salt from the ‘pink lake’ [Lake Retba] in Senegal has an interesting minerality to it and you don’t need much of it. Natural salts from Limpopo have an interesting earthiness and umami [quality] to them, so that’s fun.

Overrated trend?

Ah heheehe. I am not liking the ‘superfoods movement,’ as that has been floating around. These food items have existed for a long time, but some thought to rebrand these items, so they could fly off shelves at crazy prices.

You’ve done some incredible collaborations (Wolfgat, Earthbox, etc.), what’s been your favourite to date?

What a journey! There have been some amazing ones; we love them all equally.

Wolfgat has to be up there. Kobus, the team, the location and the guests were just amazing.

Top: Chefs Vusi Ndlovu and Kobus van der Merwe serve guests at Wolfgat restaurant in Paternoster | Middle & bottom: EDGE x Wolfgat collaborative menu

MLILO has been thriving at the Time Out Market. How has it been moving from a fine dining environment to a more casual setting?

The idea for EDGE Group was to have a fancy concept, a casual concept, and a ‘fast’ concept. Hence MLILO – it already has its own little cult following, which is nice to see.

I think it is important to be mindful of the spending habits of the guest. Not everyone is keen to spend more than a thousand rand during the week for a meal you know, so it is always cool to have something for everyone. It has its own set of challenges; you can’t be too precious about some things.

MLILO’s braai plate is exceptional, and so is the broccoli with maafe sauce. What do you enjoy about plant-based cooking?

Fire is our main source of cooking; we love fat and meat, so that is a natural thing to do. Cooking plants of all sorts over the fire is very different. [It’s] much more delicate and requires all your senses, which makes it more fun.

Top: South African Braai Plate with beef chuck, lamb chop, chicken wing & boerewors | Bottom left: Charred Broccoli with miso-pickled peanuts & maafe sauce | Bottom right: Mombasa-inspired uMbhona Classic street food at MLILO, Time Out Market CT.

You’ve racked up incredible awards (S.Pellegrino, Eat Out, Luxe). What’s been the proudest moment of your career?

Shoo! I think to date, winning the Eat Out ‘Best New Restaurant’ award was absolutely amazing in the short time we were there.

What advice would you give to young chefs in the industry?

Take your time, the journey is long. It is not always roses and glamour, but once you find your way in the chef world, it can be very rewarding. So take your time; master the craft.

Left: Chef Vusi Ndlovu | Right: Nyama Choma, thinly sliced beef with chunky kachumbari at MLILO.

Visit MLILO at the Time Out Market Cape Town at the V&A Waterfront, and explore EDGE’s page for more exciting collaborations and updates. | Instagram

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>