Female Chef Focus: Mokgadi Itsweng

Words: Robyn Samuels

Welcome to the second installment of our Women’s Month series. Over the course of this month, you’re likely to hear ‘sadvertising’ about how ‘strong’ and ‘courageous’ women are — but, in all honesty, we’re really just tired of putting up with, well, you know what, and justifying why female representation matters. When it comes to the food industry, we know that it’s a male-dominated field (surprise surprise), so we’re giving flowers where they’re due. The South African female chefs featured in this series are damn good at what they do. This is the one time we can unapologetically say that women do belong in the kitchen.

For this week’s focus, we interview chef Mokgadi Itsweng — author, food activist, champion of ancient grains and seasonal produce, and a woman of many talents.

female chefs in South Africa

You may know chef Mokgadi from her book, Veggielicious, or her most recent appearance as a guest judge on MasterChef South Africa. After recently having had the honour of cooking with her at a Food Jams event, I can confirm that it is indeed safe to meet your idols.

A product of the 70s, Mokgadi expresses how this volatile yet impressionable era impacted her life’s passions. She gives us a glimpse into her KwaZulu-Natal upbringing and shares how the dichotomy between her urban existence and rural traditions paved her personal and culinary journey. Growing up amongst a family of cooks, butchers and farmers, one could say that it was almost predestined that she would become a chef. Mokgadi added ‘food writer’ to her repertoire, fusing her media and culinary skills. She would later become food editor of True Love Magazine, before cooking up her debut book, Veggielicious; a collection of recipes from her garden and heart, and her ‘love letter’ to plant-based eating.

Interview with Chef Mokgadi Itsweng

Behind every successful woman, is a dynasty of matriarchs — chef Mokgadi recalls the female mentors who have influenced her culinary career, including the iconic, ‘Mam’ Dorah Sitole. Furthermore, she mentions how the industry would be a better place if we not only had more females cooking, but more female chefs running kitchens. Join the conversation.

People in the food industry know you pretty well, but could you tell us a little about your upbringing?

I am from Mamelodi Township, Pretoria, and I also grew up in Umlazi township, KZN. My father is Pedi from Ga Femane, Bolobeu but grew up in Mamelodi. My mother is Zulu from Umlazi. They met in Durban, where they fell in love etc… I went to boarding school in KZN and Johannesburg. Being born in the 70s means I lived through the best and the worst political times in our South African history. It also means I was raised in mixed communities that were living an urban existence, but still rooted in their rural traditions and ways. I think living in mixed communities shaped my outlook on life and my culinary passions.

female chefs in South Africa
seasonal produce

What was your introduction to cooking?

I grew up in a family that always gathered around food. My maternal family has cooks, bakers, butchers and farmers. My paternal family has farmers, butchers and cooks, so I was always going to end up in food. I got the cooking bug from my mom, but when a friend asked me to cook for a meeting, and the money was more than my monthly salary, I took leave for the days I needed and did the gig. I never looked back, because I realised that I had a special gift that could sustain me financially.

We know you studied media before going to culinary school. Could you tell us what your motivation for that transition was?

My transition from the media to food was triggered when I realised that I could make money doing what I love. So, ending up as a food writer was the perfect fit as it utilised both my media and food skills.

What misconceptions do some people have about chefs?

That chefs know everything in the kitchen. That all chefs know how to make tomato roses. That all chefs can cook. Chefs eat gourmet meals every day.

Do you ever have days where you don’t feel like cooking, and what do you eat?

Yes, I do. That’s when I either eat out or have toast with whatever toppings are in the pantry and fridge. So, I move from avo toast to hummus toast topped with tomatoes, herbs, leftover grilled veggies, chilli sauce and pickled onions.

seasonal produce
seasonal produce

How do you source inspiration for culinary concepts?

I get my inspiration from everything around me… my garden, park walks, travelling, and being around other cooks, farmers and foodies. Seasonal ingredients inspire me to come up with delicious ways to prepare them. Right now I am in love with broccoli, red cabbage, pumpkins, oranges, red hibiscus, foraged manzanilla pears and ginger. I know when spring comes, I will be inspired by spring flavours and seasonal produce.

Who are some of your mentors and how have they influenced you as a female chef?

I have a lot of women who have influenced me. Mam Dorah Sitole, was my mentor and friend. She taught me how to find my voice in the food media industry. Ausi Cynthia Motau (restaurateur and food entrepreneur), taught me about food entrepreneurship and the resilience of spirit. Maranda Engelbrecht, who was my first food boss at Woolworths 20- years ago, taught me how to tune into the artist in me and allow nature and everything around me to inspire me in the kitchen.

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

Chickpea flour is my favourite ingredient at the moment because of its versatility. I can make wraps, falafels, fritters and burgers. The hardest working ingredient in my kitchen.

You’re hosting a dream dinner soirée. Who would be at the table and what would you cook?

Kgadisco — my carefree, alter ego who is an incredible singer and loves to dance. She is thin and can eat any food she wants. She’s the life of the party and gets along with everybody.
Frida Khalo — a very interesting character who was fluid in her love, and had a huge appetite for life. I would make my version of mole for her and we would have countless tequila shots.
Queen Makoma Modjadji IV — Lobedu Queen with the powers to make rain, who rules as the ultimate monarch without a king. I would make her my version of dikgobe for mains and morogo dumplings for starters. *Dikgobe (sorghum and bambara nut stew), is a lobedu delicacy, also known as ‘Ditloo marapo le Mabele’, it uses indigenous beans and grains.

I imagine we would have a carefree night of stuffing our faces with delicious food, talking about life, dancing barefoot, learning how to make it rain and downing copious amounts of tequila, all before passing out on the couch.

female chefs in South Africa
indigenous produce

If you could change one thing about the food industry, what would it be?

I would put more women in the kitchen, especially in professional kitchens. The food industry can be very toxic and fickle, the hours are horrible and the pay is terrible, most women don’t survive in that space. We women are more empathetic and are able to be considerate of others, making us better at handling stressful working relationships and better leaders in the kitchen. Men are mostly competitive by nature and bring that energy into the kitchen, which ends up being toxic and egotistical. If we had more women running kitchens from the heart, we could change the industry for the better.

What’s your biggest pet peeve? Vent away.

The industry is still untransformed and industry gatekeepers are still very much a reality. So, as a young foodie coming up in the industry, you need to impress the gatekeepers in order to progress or even be seen. The gatekeepers are mostly European and based in the Western Cape, so you can imagine the hoops most people have to jump through to ‘make it’.

What do you get up to on your days off?

What off days??

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

I am a thrifter. When travelling, one of the first things on the agenda is thrift stores — I look for interesting and different finds. I love clothes, decor pieces, jewellery and kitchen stuff.

female chefs in South Africa
female chefs in South Africa

Do you have any advice for people trying to make the shift to plant-based eating?

My advice to anyone wanting to eat more plant-based foods is to throw away the vegan/vegetarian box. Look at your plant-based move as a journey to self-discovery, with your body being the compass. It’s impossible to go on a discovery journey when you are in a box. Start small, by going veggie for two days in a week and then build from there. Don’t be too hard on yourself; have fun on the journey.

Before the release of your book, Veggielicious, you were once approached to write a book but ‘turned down the offer because you felt that you had nothing new to say’. What advice do you have for creatives struggling to ‘find their voice’?

Take your time with any offering you give. I live life on my own terms, so I don’t compete and compare myself with other creatives, and I mostly do what feels right to me. I am open to learning and changing, which keeps me humble and fluid. You need to be open to the world, humble and committed to self-development in order to find your voice. Push yourself always to be better at your craft, by learning new things through travel, skill development and community participation. Be open to sharing what you know with others and always open opportunities to others in the industry, that’s how you build good karma.

Chef Mokgadi’s debut cookbook, Veggielicious, is available for paperback purchase at all major bookstores, as well as takealot.com and loot.co.za.

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