Courgette and Goat's Milk Cheese Quiche, a pastry made by Zola Nene
YOUNG as she is, the 33-year-old South African TV chef Zola Nene has already made her mark in the world of African foodies. A celebrity chef and food stylist on Expresso Morning Show of South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) 3, Nene cooks live for her TV audience every weekday morning.
Nene, who dropped out of law school in her early 20s to pursue her passion for food, recently added another feather to her cap. In addition to hosting a daily TV food show, she published her first cookbook titled Simply Delicious. The book won her two awards: Best TV Celebrity Chef in English, and Best TV Chef Book in English at the 2017 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards held in Yantai City, east China's Shandong Province.
While in China to receive her awards, Nene took some of her time to help promote South African flavors to residents of Beijing. Needless to say, the wide variety of Chinese food provided her with plenty of inspirations for her future projects.
A food journey
Simply Delicious chronicles Nene's food journey and culinary career through her recipes, interspersed with snippets and perspectives of her life, including tributes to the people who have inspired and influenced her cooking style.
The book takes readers through the defining food stages of her life - from the very beginning, when all she knew was the food her mother cooked; to her school days, when she began to learn basic cooking skills; to the time she realized that cooking could be her profession; to the diverse flavors she has experienced through travel; to the present day and what now defines her personal taste.
"Every single recipe in the book has a story and a reason why it influenced me in some way. These recipes recall a certain time in my life and meant something to me at that time," she told ChinAfrica.
The book starts with traditional food that her grandmother and mother used to cook when she was young. "My mother taught me what it means to feed people and to derive joy from that," Nene recalled. "It started from there and evolved as I went to schools and experienced things in different cultures."
Nene's culinary career spans over 10 years. After her two-year stint in England, she returned to South Africa, knowing for certain that she was destined for a culinary career. She immediately enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch, in South Africa's Western Cape Province, where she was able to meet and work with some of the country's top chefs.
After graduating, Nene felt as though the food world was her oyster and she had the skills, drive and desire to confidently stand alongside any chef.
Nene started working on the Expresso Morning Show in October, 2010. Looking back, she feels lucky and grateful to be the resident chef of the program. "Through Expresso, I am able to share recipes with so many different people through the medium of television," she said.
Promoting South Africa
After receiving her awards in Yantai, Nene traveled to Beijing to participate in a food festival held at Village Café. For her first time cooking for Chinese people, she chose a menu made of modernized traditional South African dishes.
"The experience was great, getting to share my recipes with the Chinese chefs at Village Café was such fun. They were also eager to learn about South African ingredients and how to prepare dishes," she said.
A legacy of South Africa's colonial past is that food cultures of several countries have melded into its cuisine over the past two centuries. Its pluralistic makeup is reflected in its variety of foods, according to Nene.
"Our food is very diverse. We have so many cultures that come together and form our cuisine, which makes it very unique," she told ChinAfrica. "I'd like to give Chinese people a taste of South African food, with a bit of refinement."
Nene said she did get to meet a lot of diners and the feedback was wonderful. "I was happy with the way the food was received by people," she said. "People can see what it's like. One day, they can come and visit South Africa and try everything."
Inspiration from China
Traveling and experiencing food in different countries have always been a source of inspiration for Nene. "If you are a foodie, you have to travel to broaden your perspectives and learn more. I want to learn as much as possible, so that I can create as much as possible," she said, adding that she will include her food experience in China as a chapter in her next cookbook.
Although she only stayed in China for two weeks, Nene said her trip was inspiring and delightful. She tried Chinese dumplings, fresh noodles, hotpot and Peking duck - all things she had wanted to taste for a long time.
"I learned how to make Chinese dumplings," she said excitedly. "I learned how to work the rolling pin in a certain way, so I am definitely taking that back." She said she planned to host a Chinese dumplings party at home and come up with new China-inspired dishes.
Eating Sichuan hotpot is also one of her unforgettable food memories in China. "It blew my mind and my brain and my mouth," she said laughing. "It was so spicy and loving at the same time. It was so delicious. I also want to try and recreate it when I get home. "
Nene believes the secret of her success is rather simple: she followed her passion and love for food. "When I started my profession, it was not as cool as it is nowadays. Chefs are the ones behind the scene, and so being a chef was not even considered as a career choice," she said.
"Love for food is my motivation. It's delightful to spread the food culture and food knowledge," she said. "I love to see the joy in people when they eat what I created. I love to teach people how to cook. I want to tell them that cooking is not that difficult."
Nene felt she is blessed to have a job that she is passionate about and allows her to share her passion with so many people every day. "Because at the end of the day, we all have to eat, so we should all be able to cook," said Nene.