Zola Nene on celebrating South Africa in Unchartered Season 2

Posted by Imogen Searra on 27 August 2020

The saying ‘If you love what you do, you will never have to work a day in your life’ rings true for South African chef Zola Nene.

She is incredibly talented, warm and vivacious and this all translates into her unparalleled expertise as one of South Africa’s top chefs.

Ahead of her episode on Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted season 2 where the culinary legend traverses the globe in a relentless pursuit of culinary inspiration, starting in South Africa, Getaway had the fortune of chatting with Zola about her experience on the show, her tips for novice chefs and the complex beauty of South African food.

‘I just hope people enjoy it and take it for what it is. I don’t see myself as the champion for culture, of for blackness, or femininity. All I am doing is portraying authentically what my heritage is and that is different for everybody.’

In Zola’s episode of Uncharted, she shows Gordon the ropes of traditional Zulu cooking at home in her birth province, KwaZulu-Natal.

Zola described how the celebration of Zulu culture was one of the elements that she loved most about the episode.

‘Whenever people come to explore South Africa, they will look at Cape Malay culture, Cape Dutch culture, Xhosa culture but very rarely do people delve deeper into Zulu culture. Everyone knows who Shaka Zulu is and they think that they have all that they need to know,’ said Zola.

‘What was really cool was being in my birth province and being so proudly Zulu and showcasing just a little bit of how beautiful the province is.’

‘Another thing I really loved was that we got to see how KZN is an amalgamation of different cultures. Zulu culture is obviously very strong but also Indian culture.

‘A lot of people don’t know that Durban has the biggest population of Indian people outside of India, which is so cool. These two cultures have lived in harmony for so long and have actually integrated into each other’s flavour profile and that was a really cool thing to showcase.’

‘I wanted to show people a tiny snippet of how beautiful and how diverse South Africa is, so that people in Asia and in the US, England and anywhere, who actually have never had South Africa as part of their travel bucket list, would see how different it maybe is to what they thought. For a second, maybe they will go “oh, maybe I will add it to the list”.’

The beauty of Unchartered is that viewers get to see Gordon Ramsay out of his depth and in someone else’s kitchen.

‘It spins Gordon Ramsay the brand on it’s head and It shows such a great side of him,’ said Zola. ‘We had so much fun.’

Foreshadowing of the final cook.

‘I think the final cook was the climax of the episode because no one was expecting there to be a hippo. The fear is actually real and the danger was imminent. We had a getaway vehicle and instructions from a ranger. It was hilarious but only because we survived. This was definitely the most exciting part.

‘A pivotal moment was when we met the Chief, he is a revered member of society. It was truly an honour to cook for somebody of that calibre. I was nervous about the food being presented to him.

‘The pressure was real but the final cook was a lot of fun.

‘Everyone’s cultural reference is different and everyone’s heritage reference is different but this is an authentic piece of me. I hope people do connect to it as authentically as I deliver it.

‘I just hope everyone who watches feels a sense of pride and goes, “yes my country is awesome, we as a people are awesome.”‘

Tips for the at home, novice chefs:

Zola explained how novice chefs need to stress less, focus on following recipes, get comfortable in the kitchen and then start experimenting.

‘I think often where people go wrong, is when they are trying to over-complicate things. First of all ingredients are paramount, in terms of freshness and quality. If you start with a great product, you’re most likely to end up with a great product.

‘Novice chefs musn’t be so hard on themselves. You’re still learning, you’re not in a competition, nobody is judging you. Focus in and make the recipe as it says. When you get a bit more comfortable and find your confidence, add your tweaks here and there.

‘I try to experiment and get it totally wrong sometimes. Just relax into it. I think why people are so afraid to cook and to try things is because they put so much pressure on themselves so that when it goes wrong, it feels like the world has ended. But it really isn’t that serious. Just relax and enjoy the process.’

The complex beauty of South African food

In terms of blending traditional cooking with contemporary and introducing South African flavours, Zola explains how she cooks from a point of nostalgia.

‘People might not recognise something as familiar but when you put a certain flavour into something, it opens up a memory bank for them that was lost until that moment, which is why I love food so much. It’s such a connector.’

Zola explained that bridging the gap between traditional and contemporary cooking comes from her experiences growing up.

‘For me, learning from my grandmother and from my mom and what she taught me in terms of traditional cooking. They never wrote anything down and always cooked from feeling and every time it was different but equally delicious.

Zola’s earliest memory of cooking was with her late maternal grandmother, teaching her to make steamed mielie bread.

‘She let me sit on the kitchen table and she had this red manual grinder. She was taking the kernels off the white mielies and putting them in the grinder and she let me grind the mielies with her. I watched her mix everything and then put it into a bowl and steam it and we ate it for dinner.’

‘I think that my role has been bridging the gap in terms of finding those traditional recipes and making them accessible.

‘There’s a revolution now where people are more excited about traditional ingredients like sorghum and mielie-meal, which are such fundamental flavours in our cultures.’

Some things you may not have known about Zola Nene

  • In her career, the worst thing she has ever cooked and peeled was a tongue.
  • The most precarious thing she has ever had to learn to perfect was a soufflé.
  • Her favourite colour is deep purple and her favourite animal is a giraffe.
  • Her favourite meal is her mom’s lamb curry and coleslaw
  • The hardest part about publishing her books is the time that it took but she says her publishing company is a dream.
  • If she was to compelled to cook only one thing for the rest of her life, it would be mielie pap.

Images: Supplied

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