Port Elizabeth’s loss was Pretoria’s gain when Khanya Mzongwana (aka Yulu Ishii) had to shut down her first restaurant, Aztec Kitchen, three years ago when she was just 22 years old. Undeterred, the restaurant’s closure pushed the chef and food stylist to leave PE and start afresh somewhere new, even though she’d never set foot outside the Windy City.
‘I lived in Joburg at first, which was such a struggle. It was really hard getting a job – it was near impossible. Finding my feet was an issue for about six months until I moved to Pretoria, then I got a job at Pure Café as the head chef,’ Khanya says, while cooking away in the cosy upstairs apartment she shares with her partner, Sakhile Ndlazi (better known in the music world as DJ Bubbles).
The move to Pretoria was an easier transition, bringing her closer to her loves, both professionally and personally. Fortuitously, Sakhile and Khanya met at a party in PE, each doing what they do best – Sakhile, spinning vinyls, and Khanya, whipping up culinary wonders. Fast forward to today and the serendipitous meeting has evolved into what we now know as Off the Wall Pop Up Restaurant. Co-owned by the couple, the restaurant hosts intimate, informal dinners inspired by different regions around the world and is a feast for foodies. And the name? An instant stroke of Michael Jackson-inspired genius and, much like its album namesake, destined for greatness.
‘We started with no capital at all. We weren’t doing it the way we wanted to do it because of budgets. Then a friend allowed us to use his yard, so it started really small with a canopy and ribbons hanging from a zinc ceiling in a coffee shop/art-house space,’ Khanya says. ‘As we grew over time, we’d collect something new every month. Then styling started becoming a priority too. So everything that came in went straight into the business.’
The couple hosts the dinners with a new theme every month at +27 Cafe in Hatfield, where Khanya’s style of cooking mimics her character – inspired, sincere and wholesome.
We sat down with Khanya to ask her a few questions about Off the Wall and her love for food.
So, is the goal to turn Off The Wall into a permanent restaurant?
We’re really enjoying the pop-up thing right now. I’m in no rush for it to become an actual restaurant. People have indicated that they’d dig that, but I’m not ready to even start thinking about that yet. This way there’s room for us to focus on other stuff that we’re doing.
Looking at social media, things seem to have really kicked off for you guys. Do you have the same constraints now as you did when you started Off the Wall?
No, not at all. We’re now working with a great venue, so things have improved for us in a huge way. We have a cool space and a good support system with those guys, and we’ve been getting a lot of exposure, which is also helpful. People are supportive in whatever way they can be at the time, whether it comes in the form of ‘Oh, this is cool, I’ll come next time’ or people showing up and we appreciate getting that support, for real.
How did you discover that food was your thing? How did you get here?
It was such a natural path. I didn’t really do a lot of thinking about it because I always loved food. I always ate more than other kids because I had a humongous appetite. I was always amped to eat all the stuff that was usually difficult to get other kids to eat and I was always happy to eat something. I eventually got into cooking because my mom was a single parent. You find that you need to help out somehow, so that’s how it went down with us. I started out as an eater and graduated. You have to love food. Period. This is sustenance. I don’t understand people who don’t care about food – it’s weird to me. If you don’t like food, what do you like?
Do you think people are scared of cooking for you?
Sometimes. It depends who you surround yourself with, but generally if you cook for people, you’re going to get nothing but appreciation. It’s an act of love, such a real and natural act of love. With food, it’s like what they say about pizza – even bad pizza is edible. It takes a lot to really, really screw up a dish. All you need is a guidance of flavours. Keep your cooking simple.
But we’ve seen your Instagram, Khanya. Is that what happens in your house every day?
Sometimes. Sometimes it gets a little fancy. Sometimes it’s just, ‘Are we really Instagramming this? Nah, fam.’ Styling is just artistic expression, but when I’m cooking food day to day, I don’t feel ashamed of the stuff that I like. I’m mainly a chicken-and-rice kind of girl.
And on other days, Khanya is a pork ragu kind of girl. She shares her recipe for this dish with us below:
‘This deliciously meaty preparation is essentially a traditional Italian pasta sauce, but can double as a soup with the addition of extra tomatoes and enjoyed with a fresh ciabatta loaf.’
25ml olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
25g celery, sliced
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 small sprig thyme
1kg pork neck, deboned and cut into chunks
1 litre chicken stock
1 tin whole, peeled tomatoes
100g tomato paste
1T brown sugar
Heat a heavy bottomed pot and add olive oil, shallot and celery. Sweat gently until translucent and fragrant.
Add garlic and fry for another minute. Add thyme and pork and brown the meat on each side. Add stock and tomatoes to the pot.
Cook until meat is very tender, for about three to four hours. Remove the pork from the sauce, place it in a bowl and roughly shred.
Stir tomato paste and sugar into the pot, then simmer sauce until it has reached a good thickness.
Add the shredded pork and mix it in thoroughly. Serve tossed through some fresh tagliatelle or with fresh bread.
See our August 2016 issue for more Mediterranean-inspired dishes by Khanya.