Hailing from the streets of Umlazi in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, Chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu never imagined her passion for cooking and food would be her passport to travel internationally.
Chef Nompumelelo is an ardent food traveller – come author - who always utilised every opportunity to learn, share and unite with food and people.
In May this year, Chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu won the Best in the World First Book category for Through the Eyes of an African Chef at the renowned Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Yantai, China.
Her greatest passion is working with small scale farmers especially women and youth who take pride in seeing a chef convert their produce into fine cuisine.
A single mother of two boys, Chef Nompumelelo studied Marketing Management at Centec, Culinary Diploma with City and Guilds of London then Ballymaloe Organic Farm and Cookery School in Ireland.
Having worked in supply chain and logistics of commodities and textiles initially, Chef Nompumelelo left for cookery in 2005, and attended Christina Martin School of Food and Wine.
Currently based in Gauteng, Sandton, Chef Nompumelelo owns and coordinates the annual Mzansi International Culinary Festival with a focus on African gastronomy and culture.
She has hosted various international chefs over the years during her own food events or co-hosting with Durban International Relations office such as Slow Food Italy and chefs from Germany, Mauritius, New Orleans, New York, Singapore, France, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
How did you become involved in the food world? What or who was your inspiration to become a Chef?
I was born on the North Coast of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and grew up between Umlazi township and Margate.
I went to school at Fundakahle Primary School, then Sekelani Higher Primary and Montebello Girls High School and finished at Port Shepstone High.
Growing up around good food, excellent cooks, diverse cultures, I unconsciously veered towards the food world and what it had to offer.
Looking back, my father travelled as a cook in his younger years and I grew around his cooking.
My grandmother owned a diner type restaurant and everyone cooked well at home – so I was surrounded by many who inspired me to start cooking.
I started cooking at an early age and I loved entertaining at home.
How would you describe the food you create and what is your favourite type of dish?
I develop dishes with indigenous ingredients to meet today’s palates to ensure our food does not die from lack of adaptation to the times - you could say it’s fine dining African food.
The season influences the dishes I like to create and they must touch various senses and taste good, not just look good.
In winter I enjoy comfort food from root vegetables, steamed bread, samp on marrow bone and broths; and in summer my dishes are lighter due to the hot weather.
Ingredients vary and I use what is in season such as berries, mielies and leafy vegetables.
Amadumbe is my absolute favourite vegetable.
Is the use of locally grown ingredients becoming more popular throughout Africa and what is being done to promote this?
For indigenous farmers it has always been part of life but for the rest of us who have been removed from our food culture, yes there is a movement back to forgotten skills and ingredients.
People are bringing back some methods of old and trying to potentially improve on them.
Proudly South Africa has embarked on promoting local businesses and producers and tourism has packages to encourage local tourism.
The consumer is becoming aware of climate change and the need to reduce carbon food print.
There is a growth in festivals to showcase local food and culture, such as Africa Month (when Africa commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in May) and Heritage Month (held in September, this month recognises aspects of South African culture which are both tangible and intangible: creative expression like music, our historical inheritance, language, the food we eat as well as the popular memory).
Media is covering talks on indigenous food and its health benefits, and the private sector, for example, Discovery Health SA, is hosting discussions on the Future of Food to encourage our people to eat healthy food and where they can source it.
What is your philosophy when it comes to using local, sustainable products in your work?
It just does not make sense to say you are showcasing your country, your people and your culture, yet you lack your food identity at the heart.
We visit to explore other cultures, food is what brings us together - thus cuisine is part of a nation’s identity.
My greatest passion is working with small scale farmers especially women and youth who take pride in seeing a chef convert their produce into fine cuisine.
In 2015, I was invited by United Nations agencies FAO and UN Women (Italy and New York) to do presentations on the role of chefs in the agriculture value chain.
I was also asked to form panel discussions at the African Union side event on agriculture value chain and gender.
Before heading to China for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, I was invited by KZN Tourism to attend the 2018 Travel Indaba where I addressed the hospitality industry about the need to nurture and grow more female talent in culinary sector.
I’m passionate about showing the world what fantastic talent we have in South Africa and in order to achieve the level of excellence we are capable of – funding and programmes dedicated to mentoring and upskilling local talent is what is required.
My journey has certainly not been an easy one and I am so grateful for my family and other key people in my life who have given me the support I have needed to achieve this kind of success.
What does Africa need to do to promote itself as a food tourism destination?
We need to take pride in our own food, develop it, document and proudly share our food history with its rich heritage.
When we get this right, visitors will flock to hear our unique food stories and have a selection of indigenous tastes instead of us cooking their food exclusively when they visit us.
We have to know that who we are is enough.
What is on your To Do list in the near future?
To sell more of my cookbooks; and I want to introduce indigenous food training at chef schools throughout South Africa.
I want to influence young chefs to venture into various aspects of gastronomy and hopefully, one day soon South Africa will develop a School of Gastronomy based on indigenous cuisine.