Food has always been in the picture for Mmabatho Molefe. However, it wasn’t until she came across a culinary bursary competition at the University of KwaZulu-Natal — where she was studying for a BA in politics, philosophy, and law — that she realised it could be an option for her future.
While she didn’t win the bursary, it was a pivotal moment for the aspirant chef, as it was here that she met Harald Bresselschmidt, the chef behind Cape Town’s Aubergine Restaurant, who gave her the opportunity to work in his kitchen for a few months. The bug had bitten, and soon Molefe enrolled at Capsicum Culinary Studio, where she completed her studies. She then returned to Durban to launch her Long Table with Friends concept — a dinner club of sorts and, most importantly, a way to keep on cooking when funds were low.
It was while looking for a job in Durban that she came across The Living Room at Summerhill Estate, where chef Johannes Richter cooks up a hyper-endemic tasting menu. She realised the potential this held for the province’s produce, and the seed was planted for what would become Emazulwini.
A stint at another fine-dining restaurant in Cape Town was cut short by Covid-related retrenchments and, with the industry not hiring, Molefe was at loose ends. Yet, when one door closes another invariably opens, and she pitched a concept for the about-to-open food incubation hub and market Makers Landing at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The young chef had noticed a gap in the market for restaurants run by Black chefs, and wanted to create an environment where Black chefs could thrive — especially other women.
“I hoped to create a space that was inspirational, [that was] an opportunity to stand up and say, ‘We too can be taken seriously,’” says Molefe. And so Emazulwini came to be — a Black-owned and -run restaurant with an entirely female kitchen team that champions Zulu cuisine. She drew on the food she enjoyed growing up and combined this with her professional training to create what would become a tasting menu.
“It was important that people were open to at least trying everything,” says the chef. “I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to skip dishes because of misconceptions [of tripe, chicken feet or tongue, for instance] — it’s totally fine if they don’t like it, but I’d rather they try it first. More often than not, they do enjoy it, though!”
It’s this dedication to celebrating her heritage, this uniquely considered offering and, no doubt, her prodigious skill that have catapulted Molefe to international renown, even if she merely attributes it to being in the right place at the right time. She acknowledges the hardship of being an African woman in the industry, and speaks of the lack of representation in professional kitchens, of women being an element of stability at home, of her own love of spending time with family, and the global movement towards better mental well-being and work/life balance.
“How do we allow people to be there for their families and still work in the industry? How do we split hours to allow people adequate time off while still running a successful restaurant? There’s a lot of talk, but we need the action to make it happen.”
The phenomenon of the celebrity chef is touched on, too. There’s a mentality that, in order to have made it as a Black chef, you have to be a TV chef. “Black chefs struggle to excel in the industry because of lack of funding. At the end of the day, the celebrity-chef route pays better, and we all need to pay our bills. We need investors in Black creativity if we are going to take the industry forward.”
While Molefe has found fame, she is intent on building herself into a chef who competes on a professional level. This journey has already begun with her inclusion in the World’s 50 Best, 50 Next List, which features 50 young people from around the globe who are changing the world of gastronomy in unique and interesting ways. It is evident that this is but the start of what will no doubt be a long and storied career for Molefe — a trailblazer of a woman who is determined to forge her own path, not only for herself but for all African women in the industry.
For bookings, click here or call: 0732927441.