A love of fresh produce has inspired Chef Noni Masombuka to become one of South Africa’s innovative and experimental culinary creators.
Raised in rural KwaNdebele, in a small South African town called, Noni is one of five children.
An introvert, when Noni was young, she would rather be found in her grandmother’s garden away from the fuss in her busy household.
It was here she learned the importance of growing your own fruits and vegetables, as well as experimenting with different flavours and using some produce raw while cooking meals.
Not really interested in food early on in her life, Noni pursued a career as a flight attendant, but after a few fated twists and turns, ended up catering for pilots who loved her food.
Noni has gone on to found a successful South African-wide catering business BlackOlive House based in Johannesburg, where she works as the Head Chef and creates original dishes that celebrate the use of in-season, fresh, locally sourced African produce.
Was food a big part of your childhood?
Growing up as a child, I was not really interested in food.
However, I spent a lot of time in my grandmother's garden, which is where I think I subconsciously understood the importance of growing your own fruits and vegetables as well as experimenting with different flavours.
This is where I also learned the idea (and great tasting result) of cooking your fruits and eating your vegetables raw.
So, when did that change? When did you become interested in the food world?
When I was 14, one of my electives at high school was Hotel Keeping and Catering, which is now known as Consumer Studies in South Africa.
There I fell in love with creating dishes and transforming a dining experience for people.
We were required to host a Hotel Evening; where the public could buy tickets for a dining experience.
The students prepared the meals and were graded according to the overall experience of the evening.
When I graduated high school, I went on to study Hospitality Management at Rosebank College where we did Culinary for six months.
After I obtained my diploma I went into aviation and obtained my cabin crew license where I became a Flight Attendant for a few years.
In 2011, after a company I worked for got liquidated, I became unemployed for 11 months before being offered a job as a Flight Administrator and Cape Town. During my time there, some of the pilots were not happy with their caterer and asked me to prepare their meals for them; and that's how I got into the industry.
Who inspired you to become a Chef?
I was not inspired by people; I was inspired by my love of fresh produce after all those years spent in my grandmother’s garden.
Why do you choose to use locally sourced products in your cooking?
I think it is very important to use locally sourced products because it creates sustainability within the farming industry as we are helping the farmers build their businesses; which further allows them to produce more of their products and in the long run create a strong agricultural base for South Africa.
At BlackOlive House, we use only the freshest of local ingredients for our catering – for homes and businesses. We change our menu frequently to suit what food is in-season.
What local products do you use the most?
Honey is something I use a lot, it is very versatile.
I would urge consumers to use it sustainably and try to find organic honey.
What is it about the African cuisine that you celebrate – and that should be showcased to promote it to future generations?
African cuisine is so versatile and transformative.
It is very vast and I think future generations can benefit greatly from exploring it more and understanding the stories that make each dish what it is; in order to allow evolution to take place within the food culture of Africa.
What is your specialty dish to make?
I don't have a speciality dish I make or enjoy eating.
For me, each day in the kitchen is a chance to explore and push boundaries on what we understand food to be, in South Africa.
Each dish is like a painting of some sort, and it tells its own story - I am more interested in the exploration, than I am in deciding what my favourite dish is.
However, in saying that, my time spent as a Flight Attendant afforded me the opportunity to travel, and through that I fell in love with West African cuisine especially.
I like making food with standard products found in your pantry, and then turning it into a gourmet dish.
Visit BlackOlive House for more information.