Lucas Ndlovu, chef supremo

28 March 2003

Lucas Ndlovu had a very good reason for pursuing a career as a chef. “I’m a good eater,” he says, and laughs.

Ebullient, outgoing, he greets the guests who pack out the dining room at the Coach House in Agatha, near Tzaneen. He is one of the main attractions of this elegant hostelry. “People want to see the person who’s going to cook the food,” he says.

So, outfitted in a white chef’s jacket bearing the overseas logo of the South African Chefs Association – a chef’s hat on a Zulu shield with crossed assegai and knobkierie – he makes the rounds of the dining room as executive chef of a restaurant he has made famous throughout the country and beyond.

He started as a “chef’s assistant” in Hartebeespoort in 1958, at a time when blacks in professional kitchens were relegated to cleaning and chopping. In fact, he says, “in the old days, at the hotels, the black and white chefs ate separately”.

There were advantages – black chefs had no responsibilities. “We were always the sous-chef,” he says.

But employers and executive chefs noticed the talent of this young trainee chef, and he was soon out of the scullery and rising to the top in a series of well-regarded hotels – the Silverton in Pretoria, where he met his wife, Elizabeth Makae, now also a chef; the Rustenburg Hotel; and quite often Cybele Lodge in Mpumalanga, long known for its fine cuisine.

Experimenting with game
It was a hectic life: his wife and children lived in Pretoria; he stayed in a flat near his work; and often he’d take tourists to Cybele, near the Kruger Park, and cook for them.

“I kept it up for years,” he says, experimenting with game, developing a great reputation for menus featuring venison.

When his employer emigrated in the early 1980s, a British immigrant who dreamed of a hotel in the bushveld in what is now Limpopo province recruited him – and he and his family went to the Coach House, built near a 19th-century staging post. He’s been there ever since, training young chefs, inventing new recipes, and travelling overseas for competitions and demonstrations.

The South African Chefs Association, formed in the early 1970s, inducted Ndlovu as its first and, for some time, only black member. He is currently one of the 25 top chefs elected to the association’s Academy of Chefs.

The academy’s aim is to set up role models, recognise chefs who have made a contribution to the profession, and promote the association’s Horizon training programme. He has been inducted into the international Chaine de Rotisseurs, one of only 24 South African chefs so honoured.

How did he rise to the top, in a profession where the odds were against him? He had support from employers and other chefs, who were interested in talent, not in race. He has always had stamina. And in the great tradition of chefs, modesty is not his over-riding quality.

“There is no young chef in South Africa that can cook better than I can,” he says simply. “I tell the young boys now – let’s cook with happiness. I love my job.” And “the young chefs say I have magic in my hands. I say no, I have magic, but my magic is here” – and he taps his head.

Magic in his head
He operates out of a vast suite of kitchens with a staff of 12 (“How many chefs do you have working for you?” one asks. “Four or five cooks,” he says, “four or five ladies who do the desserts, and one lady who does starters.”), but he still does all his own sauces.

Together his staff translate the “magic in his head” into some truly fabulous dishes, all from local ingredients: paper-thin ostrich carpaccio; avocado with ginger, honey and celery; grilled baby kingklip rolled in macademia nuts, served with a mango and mampoer sauce; roast quail with bacon rolls, served with bread sauce, game chips and marula jelly.

But it is for meat that he’s best known. “When I started here, I contacted all the butcheries, but the quality of the meat wasn’t right. I went to Munich farm near Pietersburg for Bonsmara cattle, young cattle between two and two-and-a-half years’ old.” It’s on the menu: a fine cut of flame-grilled rump, sirloin or fillet; a prime cut of matured Bonsmara beef with a choice of sauces.

There’s venison on the menu as well: kudu medallions en croute, wrapped in bacon and served with marula jelly. And glorious desserts ranging from pecan pie and home-made ice cream to a magnificent Pavlova.

He is a great promoter of local products. “Our beef is the best,” he says, and “our kingklip is the best – overseas their fish is too soft. We may be poor in other ways, but not in food.”

He has cooked abroad often, giving demonstrations in Scotland and in Denmark – and “when I compare my standard of work with the standard overseas, we are the best”. In Scotland, for example, he asked for veal bones to make consomme, and was given beef bones. “They always use beef bones for consomme, they said. But you need veal bones to make a jelly.”

Cooked for poor children
Once a year, the World Association of Cooks Societies stages a World Cooks Tour for Hunger – a concept invented by South African chef and Ndlovu’s mentor, Bill Gallagher, food and beverage director of the Southern Sun hotel group. Chefs from all over the world travel to the chosen site at their own expense to train hotel and restaurant staff and to host fund-raising events, including street parties for underprivileged children. Ndlovu has been involved in the event from the beginning.

He’s also cooked in villages for poor children, showing their parents how to make simple food more nutritious. The ordinary meals eaten in the villages can be so much better than they are.

“At home they take a cabbage, boil it, eat it,” he says. “I say, why don’t you just put the water on the plate and eat that?” Rather, he says, cut up an ordinary cabbage, put it in cold water and “drain it properly”. Fry onions in oil until they’re golden brown, add salt and pepper and then the cabbage, and let it all simmer for 20 minutes.

Cook it with the flowers
Or take morogo, or wild spinach, probably the South African national dish: “People just boil morogo and eat it. But morogo has flowers. I say cook it with the flower. It will give a colour – something as simple as that.” Peeled, chopped and sauteed tomatoes also go into Ndlovu’s version of morogo.

Only the eldest Ndlovu child is in the food business – he cooks in the Coach House nougat kitchen – but the youngest son intends to be a chef. He’s getting practice: the entire family piles into the kombi to cater at weddings.

Ndlovu has cooked in city hotels and game reserves, in South Africa and abroad. He’s cooked for former presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. He’s cooked for former Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi and a huge number of other politicians and celebrities. But there are still goals.

Who’s left to cook for?

The national soccer teams: “I want to cook for Bafana Bafana and Amabokoboko,” he says. “I want to travel as their chef.”