‘If you wait for the perfect conditions to just magically appear, you’ll wait your whole life,’ says Khanya Mzongwana, who started her cooking career at just nine years old. She now has her fingers in as many pies as possible (strictly figuratively speaking because she ‘abhors’ baking) – expertly juggling food shoots, reimagining recipes for restaurants, speaking about her entrepreneurial journey, working on her first book, tempting adoring social media fans with self-styled foodie posts and, of course, hosting monthly Off the Wall pop-up restaurants.
‘There’s an extensive amount of research that goes into planning our menus through the internet and practical experimentation,’ says Khanya. ‘I do more home cooking closer to the time and explore key ingredients that will end up being a part of my final menu, figuring out flavours and textures that work and adding my own personal spin on things – but chef’s remorse is totally a thing.’
One of our Next Generation stars for 2016, we checked in with Khanya a year later to find out where she’s at now and what new opportunities and ideas the past 12 months have brought.
Which three words or phrases most accurately describe the past year for you?
‘Challenging’ is a word that comes to mind when I think of all the spiritual, mental and creative changes I’ve undergone since the year began. ‘Insightful’, in terms of the shift in relationships. But most of all, this year’s been a lot of fun; a wise woman named Ling Sheperd said 2017 is the final year for bad but fun decisions… sometimes being a fool can bring about some valuable life lessons!
What have been some of the highlights – career-related and otherwise – over the past 12 months?
Media coverage is always flattering; I enjoyed shooting Bayeza 2017 with [digital publishing company] Between 10and5 recently and uncovering a new approach to food – one that is more focused on the future of farming. I finally took the plunge and started Undignified, a social intervention that aims to make access to good food easier and abolish the class distinction in food that has excluded the working class from being able to enjoy good food at a price they can afford. I also shot an episode with British chef Matt Tebutt of Discovery Channel’s Kings of the Wild, where we discussed local ingredients and even got to cook together.
And what have some of the biggest challenges been?
Finding my own voice in this very agreeable, very white industry as a young black woman has been tough. There are times where you just have to play the game and then there’s a time where you have to decide who you are and honour your creative identity and do things a bit differently.
How has your creative work, approach or outlook changed since we last spoke to you?
I’m not like a lot of my peers in the food industry, the other ways in which I’m creative have begun to shape my personal food style and I’m getting more comfortable with my approach. I’ve also made a commitment to make my work about people as I’ve often centered my work around myself – the social media attention and the oohs and aahs that come with being a food stylist are great fun, but I’ve realised that if I want to keep being able to do what I love, which is to feed people, then the focus needs to be on the future of food in South Africa and not just what’s currently available.
What are you busy with at the moment?
I’m busy building an amazing food blog to house my recipes. It’s really important to me to keep being inspired creatively and I’d also like to use the blog to archive some of my mother’s recipes. In addition, I’m working on Undignified, which will be a fun social platform used to make better eating an accessible thing to everyone. I can’t say anything more at this point, though.
And lastly, where do you hope to be or what do you hope to have achieved another year from now?
I hope to have left the country a year from now, to be honest. I also hope to make some real moves in the way of helping to get better nutrition out there to all who need it.