She’s cooked from the UK to the Cape, brightened up the screens of breakfast television, written two award-winning cookbooks, and has been a judge on The Great South African Bake Off. And to think Zola Nene could have ended up a lawyer.
Luckily for local palates the siren song of the stove proved too strong, and for much of the past decade Nene has shown South Africans the unfiltered joy that a good meal can bring. We asked for her favourite food haunts in her Mother City hometown, and beyond ...
What is your earliest food memory?
I’m not sure which happened first, but I distinctly remember taking out cook-by-picture books from the primary school library. I also remember my grandmother letting me cook mielie bread with her; those were definitely my earliest encounters with food.
I only realised pretty late in life that being a chef was even a possibility. After high school I went and studied BCom in law: I’m talkative and argumentative, so it seemed a perfect career choice. I did that for a couple of years, but I realised I wasn’t passionate about it. I really enjoyed cooking though, so I went to the UK to work in kitchens for a bit, then came back to study culinary arts, and that’s where it all started.
What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
Don’t we all have so many! I love Aromat. I think it’s part of the Durban thing, putting curry powder on green mangoes, but trust me, put curry powder and Aromat on green mangoes and your life will change.
You recently filmed part of a TV series with Gordon Ramsay. Where would you like to take him for dinner in Cape Town?
I’ve never had a bad meal at Upper Bloem in Green Point, so I would definitely take him there. I love the story behind the menu, with chef Andre Hill influenced by his Cape Malay upbringing and putting that into a relaxed fine-dining setting. The food is amazing, and the service is great.
As restaurant editor for Eat Out magazine you spent plenty of time dining out. What irks you about restaurants in Cape Town?
The one thing I really hope never comes back is double seating — with two seatings for dinner. If you’re in the first seating it always feels like you’re being rushed out, no matter how hard they try, and the second seating always feels so late. Who wants to eat at midnight? I understand the reasoning behind it, and that it’s profitable, but eating out is about the whole experience, enjoying the moment and prolonging the meal. If you feel rushed you’re being cheated out of the experience.
Where will we find you on a sunny Saturday?
I love the Oranjezicht City Farm Market. It’s a beautiful market, with the location, the set-up, and the vegetable display. It’s such a wonderful Saturday morning thing to do, but get there early before the crowds arrive. I head straight to the farthest food area. You’ll find great coffee, and an egg stall that does the most amazing scrambled egg, pesto, tomato and roast mushroom croissant.
I also absolutely love the Babylonstoren gardens in the winelands. The air feels so clean there and there’s so much to do and see. It’s not just nature; it’s edible nature!
At Babel the breakfast buffet is the thing of dreams. If I die and go to heaven I want my first breakfast there to look just like that.
But I also love The Greenhouse for the simplicity. You can build your own sandwich, with a seasonal salad on the side. And I love that you can put biltong on your sandwich. That’s inspired! It’s simple, but it’s all just done so well. In that beautiful setting how could you not be happy?
What’s your favourite small town in the Western Cape?
It would have to be George; it’s where I grew up and where my parents’ house is. George has a bit of a bad rep, but it’s a cool little place. People should give it a go before they knock it! It’s quiet and it’s beautiful. It has amazing golf courses, with beautiful beaches and coastline just a few minutes away. There’s a lovely market on the outskirts of town that has great local produce and is aimed at families. The town is not really spoilt for good food choices, but there is Kafe Serefé that’s been there for many years and does wonderful Turkish-style food.
We love your headscarves and colourful style. Where do you shop?
I love the local designers at The Space. Headscarves are a great accessory that also doubles up for hygiene in the kitchen. I’m actually in the process of designing my own headscarf range. The designs are a bit more abstract, with lots of colour. I love to do bright and cheery, and I think adding a bit of colour to a white chef’s jacket is a cool thing too.
Otherwise, I love the clothes from Isabel de Villiers. She is an amazing designer and I own many of her pieces. Another place I love to shop at is Mali South in Long Street. I’ll take colourful fabric to Mali South, where their seamstresses and tailors will create an amazing Afro-chic outfit. But they also have an array of designs from all over Africa.