Female Chef Focus: Mmabatho Molefe of Emazulwini

Words: Robyn Samuels

For this week’s Female Chef Focus, we interview Mmabatho Molefe, chef and owner of Emazulwini Restaurant — an ode to Nguni cuisine and her fondest childhood food memories bestowed on her by her parents. As a half Zulu, half Sotho woman, Mmabatho seeks to honour traditional dishes, while also bringing them into the contemporary space of gastronomy — a tricky balance, but she manages to beautifully marry both worlds. In this interview, Mmabatho tells us of her love for offal, an ingredient often underappreciated, and a misconception she challenges through her cooking. Join the conversation.

female chefs in South Africa

Interview with Mmabatho Molefe

Although cooking had always been her life’s calling, Mmabatho initially enrolled for a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Law, before heeding the call and leaving university in pursuit of a culinary career. But, breaking into the food scene wasn’t as smooth a transition as she had hoped… along with the help of her genius sister, she then ideated the concept for The Long Table Experience — a culinary invitation to break bread with strangers, turned friends.

She would then venture out in the world of restaurateuring with the opening of Emazulwini, a modern Zulu-inspired restaurant, which champions Nguni cuisine and South African produce. Despite being ignored by all the top ten restaurants she applied to after graduating from culinary school, Mmabatho was recently named in The World’s 50 Best, 50 Next: The Young People Shaping the Future of Gastronomy — a massive feat. She offers some refreshing advice on the rollercoaster that is ‘success’, and navigating a world where, sometimes, ‘being a creative is shit’.

When did you know you wanted to become a chef?

I was always interested in food and started cooking at a young age. I think it started with watching cooking shows and I later grew to just enjoy cooking — till it graduated to an almost obsessive stage in varsity, when I spent more time doing it than anything else. After a few years of trying to attain a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Law, I decided to leave university in pursuit of a culinary career.

If you were to describe your cooking style, what would it be?

I wouldn’t say I have a particular cooking style, but if I had to put it into words, I would say ‘old-meets-new’. I’m half Zulu and half Sotho. I still want to honour traditional dishes and make sure that they are cooked the way they should be or at least come close to what they should be, in terms of flavour, while introducing modern techniques.

50 Next: The Young People Shaping the Future of Gastronomy

How has your upbringing influenced your cooking?

I think it has influenced it a lot. Most of the food I cook and the stories I tell are based on food memories. Growing up, I never realised my brain was working so hard to store them, but I’m glad it did. My inspiration for cooking is my family. Most of the dishes that I come up with are based on a food memory from home. So, whenever I come up with a dish it is usually based on that.

What’s your fondest food memory?

It’s difficult to single one out, but my mum took me out to restaurants a lot during my varsity time and my dad would literally let me do groceries that were probably for a family of four. I think even though I wasn’t studying anything food-related, they still kept that passion for food very much alive and active.

Do you have a mentor? How have they helped you as a chef?

I have many mentors and they aren’t all ‘in food’. I think they help me by allowing me to honour and stay true to myself. I have really been blessed to have people I can go to and just vent — and they will listen!

What mistakes have you made in the kitchen that helped you become a better cook?

Lol. I think burns and cuts are sort of a regular feature in our lives as chefs. I think the most important thing a chef can do is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the kitchen. I have learnt from countless mistakes, from overcooking ice cream to overboiling milk — one of the most annoying things to clean up by the way! And mishaps like almost breaking multiple pieces of equipment.

Female Chefs in South Africa
female chefs in South Africa

What are some misconceptions people have about chefs?

I don’t really believe there are misconceptions that other people have about chefs, but rather misconceptions that we as chefs have on how we are meant to be. Running a kitchen requires a bit of authority, but I think gone are the days of screaming and throwing plates.

What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with at the moment?

Using any form of offal — I often feel that black women, like offal, have been under appreciated, while still sustaining a lot of households. So, cooking with offal and indigenous ingredients represents a lot more value as an ingredient, for me. It’s about changing the misconceptions and prejudices that the world, and sometimes ourselves have about its place and value in gastronomy.

Mmabatho Molefe Emazulwini Restaurant
50 Next: The Young People Shaping the Future of Gastronomy

What’s your biggest pet peeve?

I’m a pretty relaxed person, so I don’t think I have pet peeves, but one thing that I personally think is weird is when people act like they don’t know you just because they only know you on Instagram. Just recently I met ‘Katy’, who I follow on Instagram, and because I couldn’t place where I knew her from I didn’t say ‘hi’ properly. When I realised who it was, it just ate me. When I finally caught on, I sent her a DM to apologise. Luckily, she had also forgotten my name, so we didn’t dwell on it.

If you could, what would you change about the food industry?

I think, at the moment, the industry is in a process of changing, so I’m hopeful about giving it time to do that. But, I definitely wish that as chefs we wouldn’t have our guard up as much as we sometimes do.

Do you ever have days where you don’t feel like cooking?

The past couple of weeks have been like that. I just moved on my own and haven’t bought myself a fridge yet, so my diet currently consists of mostly legumes and 2-minutes noodles.

What do you get up to on your days off?

I usually spend time with my family. If my budget allows, I use the time to eat out and try out new food spaces and restaurants in Cape Town.

You recently visited Spain; what was the best part about your travels? More importantly, what did you eat?

The best part was experiencing the eat-out culture. Seeing people out on the streets with their families at 9 pm was great. I was fortunate enough to travel with my sisters and try out a few restaurants in San Sebastian and Bilbao. But, as much as I enjoyed experiencing other food cultures, I think my trip made me realise how much I love my own — and that South African wine is goddamn delicious!

What’s one thing about you that most people wouldn’t know?

I’m a huge ‘stan’ of most 2012-2015 SA hip hop!

You’re hosting a dream dinner soirée for three of your favourite people. Who would be at the table?

Lol, I have always been cautioned against meeting your idols. But, I think as chefs we don’t really get to spend as much with family as we are afforded, so I would host a regular dinner party for my family and friends.

Where did the idea for The Long Table originate? What do you hope for the creative project?

I started the The Long Table Experience just after culinary school, mainly because all of the top 10 restaurants I sent emails to weren’t replying. I was eager to cook for people, but as always the budget didn’t allow it. So my sister came up with the idea that I should sell tickets to friends. I went ahead and applied the costing skills that I learned through only one costing assignment and decided to charge R300 for a 3-course meal with wine pairing and welcome drinks. Of course, I was my own ‘somm’. I decided to host 30 people in an Airbnb and still today I can’t book an Airbnb with my account. I don’t think the hosts believe in reform and rehabilitation. Nonetheless, the evening was a complete success. I really appreciate everyone that came because they soldiered through a lot of cold food.

But, being in the kitchen and hearing the laughter and how when we forget about our inhibitions and are open to meeting new people, it’s the most beautiful thing. So, the goal for the project is to achieve that. It also serves as a creative outlet for me. Before, I couldn’t cook my own menu because I was working for someone else and because of the focus on Emazulwini, I now use The Long Table to share other ideas that aren’t Emazulwini-related.

Was your family always supportive of your culinary aspirations?

My family would literally support any single thing I would do. Now that I am older and ‘adulting’, I get where my parents were coming from… the roller coaster and (sometimes) uncertainty of being ‘a creative’ is shit, and half the time you spend doubting yourself. To be honest, I would kill to have a corporate job, to be able to afford things and have the opportunity to work on my financial future at a young age.

But, for me, what I am doing now feels like it was a calling, and I would have gotten into it at some point. So, I would say start pursuing ‘it’ at a young age. At least then you will have enough time to figure things out before the societal pressure and life responsibilities get to you. I think I am able to do what I do because my sisters listened to my parents and stayed in school — because whom am I supposed to ask for money if we are all hustling?

You’ve flourished not only as a chef, but also restaurateur. Do you have any advice for those with similar aspirations?

To be honest, I wouldn’t say I have ‘succeeded’. I think I have started to bring awareness to what Emazulwini is about and what we are trying to achieve, but we are just getting started. That being said, I am hopeful for the future.

What I would say to someone starting out — and I guess this is coming from a point of privilege, having had someone believe in my dreams and take on the financial burden of it — a lot of times we talk ourselves out of doing something we have never done before either because we are afraid we will either fail or ‘look stupid’, or both… but, after a recent conversation, Michelle from Indikaap said to me, “don’t make decisions on long-term positive outcomes based on a short-term negative mentality”. Since then, I have been telling myself to get out of my own way and just start! Believe in your heart, your intention and your commitment, and just allow God to do the rest.

*Emazulwini Restaurant is currently closed for renovations. They officially reopen to the public at the start of October. Follow them on social media for updates.

linktr.ee/emazulwini.restaurant | Facebook | Instagram

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