Celebrating South African flavours: Simply Delicious

With the support of her parents, Zola Nene swapped her law studies – for which she had no enthusiasm – for working in professional kitchens in the UK. She returned to South Africa to study the culinary arts. Now that passion has culminated in her debut cookbook, Simply Delicious.

Zola Nene South African chef Zola Nene says she is excited about her debut cookbook, Simply Delicious. (Image: Dawie Verwey, © Penguin Random House South Africa)

Compiled by Priya Pitamber

Chef and food stylist Zola Nene has released her debut cookbook, Simply Delicious. It seemed a natural step in the 31-year-old’s culinary career following her move from the lecture halls of B.Comm law to the kitchen. She merely followed her passion.

Nene was reading law, but was not inspired by the career choice, and gave it up to work in professional kitchens in the UK. That stint abroad sealed her fate. On her return to South Africa, she studied food media at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch. Since then, Nene has also added resident chef on the morning news show, Expresso, to her resumé.

When did your love affair with food start?

I’ve always loved cooking. Even from a young age I was taking cookbooks out of the library instead of regular story books and my mum would let me experiment in the kitchen. Food has always played a significant role in my family, too, because celebrations were marked by delicious meals prepared by my mother and grandmother.

What was the first thing you made, and what did it taste like?

The first thing I made was a ham and cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg – (croque madame). I saw it in a cook-by-pictures book and asked my mum if I could try making it. It turned out really well and was delicious. It’s still something that I love making to this day – it even features in my cookbook.

Nene cookbook South African chef Zola Nene is featured on the cover of her debut cookbook. (Image: Dawie Verwey, © Penguin Random House South Africa)

How did you move from studying a B.Com law degree to working in a professional kitchen in the UK?

After two years of studying B.Com law, I realised that it really wasn’t the profession for me. I was unmotivated and bored with all of my subjects. I spoke to my parents about it; they immediately said that I shouldn’t do anything that I’m not happy doing and should focus my energy on what I was passionate about.

I told my dad that I liked to cook so he suggested that I take a year off studying and go and cook in professional kitchens overseas and see if I would like to make it a career. I then ventured off to the UK with the intention of working as a chef in a professional kitchen.

Please tell us more about your experience in the UK.

I spent two years working in the UK as a chef, first in the hot kitchen, then later as a pastry chef. I worked in a brasserie in a town called Knutsford where I was thrown in the deep end and had to sink or swim. This was a high-pressure professional kitchen and service was intense. But I thrived on the pressure and loved every minute of it. My time there definitely cemented the fact that I wanted to be a chef.

Studying food media at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch is interesting. Why did you choose it?

When I returned from the UK, I enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Arts and chose to do a three-year diploma course specialising in food media in the final year. I chose this because I knew that I wanted to be a chef and wanted to learn all the fundamentals of the culinary industry, but I also knew that I didn’t want to dedicate my entire career to working in a restaurant kitchen forever. I was very interested in food styling and wanted to learn how to style images for print media, so specialising in food media helped me gain those skills.

What has been your most outstanding moment since working in the culinary industry, and what has been the most challenging?

My most outstanding moment to date has to be publishing my first cookbook. It is an absolute dream come true for me and I’m so excited about it.

The most challenging has to be the first time I cooked live on TV. I was out of my comfort zone but I’m so glad that the Expresso producers pushed me to do it. Now it is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

Tell us more about your debut cookbook, Simply Delicious. When did you start, and how did you go about selecting recipes for it? What impact do you hope to have?

I started compiling the recipes for the book about two years ago. It’s been a long process, but a very rewarding one too. It’s been such a fabulous experience writing my food journey on paper for other people to read about.

The first time I held a copy of the book in my hands was very emotional; I definitely shed a tear. The moment was just so surreal.

I feel such a sense of pride knowing that my recipes will live forever in a cookbook. No-one can ever take the accolade away from me.

I’m not certain what impact it will have on people, but my hope is that people will receive it in the intent that it was meant, with love from me. Every single recipe in the book has a reason why I’ve included it and I hope that people making the recipes experience the same kind of joy when eating the food as I did creating the recipes.

In what way is South African cuisine unique? What is your favourite cuisine?

What makes our cuisine so unique is the fact that it is so diverse. Our country is a melting pot of cultures and so too is our food.

I don’t have a favourite cuisine because I like to play around with flavours and combine different cuisines to create a new recipe. My pap lasagne is a great example of that theory – fusing a traditional South African staple food like pap, with an Italian dish.

Nene pap lasagne Chef Zola Nene likes to combine and experiment with flavours. Merging Italian and South African food, she created pap lasagne. (Image: Dawie Verwey,© Penguin Random House South Africa)

Pap lasagne

  • Serves 4–6
  • 30ml olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 5ml fennel seeds
  • 500g pork mince
  • 15ml tomato paste
  • 410g can chopped tomatoes
  • 10ml white sugar
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 800ml vegetable stock
  • 250ml maize meal
  • 125ml grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for topping
  1. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and sauté the onion and fennel seeds until the onion has softened.
  2. Add the pork mince and cook, stirring continuously, until browned.
  3. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes and sugar, season to taste and reduce the heat.
  4. Leave to gently simmer for 15 minutes while you prepare the pap.
  5. Place the vegetable stock into a saucepan and bring to the boil.
  6. Sprinkle in the maize meal while stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon.
  7. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-25 minutes until the pap is thick and cooked through.
  8. It should come away from the sides of the pan.
  9. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese.
  10. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  11. Grease a 2-litre capacity ovenproof dish and evenly spread half the pap over the base.
  12. Pour over the mince sauce and spread the remaining pap on top.
  13. Sprinkle over some extra Parmesan cheese and bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese is
  14. melted and golden.

– Extracted from Simply Delicious by Zola Nene (Struik Lifestyle)

What is your one, easy go-to-dish when you get home from work and you are really tired?

Midweek roast chicken, which is included in my cookbook. It takes 10 minutes to prepare, the oven takes care of the rest and in less than an hour you have a delicious meal.

Tell us about a recipe that has flopped.

Because I develop a lot of recipes, I’ve had many recipes flop – everything from cakes to sauces. But everything is always a learning curve and if at first you don’t succeed, try again. I never just give up on a flopped recipe; I tweak it and try it again until it’s perfect – that’s how the best recipes are created.

What advice can you share with aspiring cooks?

My advice for aspiring cooks is do what you love and love what you do. Follow your passion and don’t let anyone stand in the way of your achievements. Also, find a mentor to aspire to and look up to. Having someone to teach and guide you is always a plus.

How important is it for chefs and restaurants to familiarise themselves with different dietary requirements, especially in a place as diverse as South Africa?

It’s very important, and I’m happy to see that most restaurants nowadays cater for most dietary requirements. It’s important for restaurants to adapt and change so as to stay relevant in these times in which consumers are demanding that their needs be met.

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