Chef Wandile Mabaso
Chef Wandile Mabaso
Image: Simz Mkhwanazi

It’s been a year since he returned from Paris, and Michelin-trained chef Wandile Mabaso is now familiar with local fresh-produce markets. At the moment he’s enjoying the season’s roots: parsnip and beetroot. On his menu is a potato-and-leek salad garnished with alfalfa sprouts and chickpeas: Mabaso relishes how velvety it tastes — perfect food for winter. He likes to follow this with a dish of Neufchâtel cheese and caviar. A divine combination!

When we meet at his restaurant, SA Culinary Club in Bryanston, Mabaso looks relaxed, and exudes calm authority. The eatery serves to-die-for French cuisine: Mabaso’s speciality. For our meeting, he has made a few dishes, and proceeds to explain how they were prepared. Among other things, Mabaso explains that the richness of pork needs to be balanced with something acidic and sweet.

Our conversation oscillates between various topics from our country’s political history, which affects what we consume, to his childhood. His interest in food began from a young age: there were a few failed attempts at cooking rice, but by the time Mabaso was 14 he was cooking mouth-watering dishes for family lunches. However, growing up in Soweto meant he had no role models to guide his passion, so he turned to television cooking shows and magazines.

As we chat, the kitchen is a hive of activity — langoustines from Mozambique have arrived for a private dinner. It’s going to be feast. Mabaso also shows me the prime rib he’s aged in whisky for the past 40 days, saying: “It breaks down enzymes and matures the flavour of the beef, which becomes intense.”

With the opening of his restaurant at Hobart Grove, Bryanston, Mabaso fulfilled a long-standing ambition. He trained in Paris under celebrated chef Alain Ducasse from 2015 to 2017, after a stint in New York; when he returned home, he was fully armed with all the culinary knowledge and skills to run a successful and innovative eatery. And judging from the phenomenal response, the restaurant has had so far, Mabaso is on the right path.

Even its layout reflects his vision of food preparation: an island kitchen adjoins the dining area, with square tables flowing into the gallery, and food preparations in view. Live music and visual art enhance the vibrant environment.

The décor is also attractive and refreshingly different. There’s a dash of quirk in the red-rooster paintings on parts of the wall — far from the baroque style, replete with chandeliers that filled Mabaso’s days at the Le Meurice Alain Ducasse in Paris — which offer a glimmer into the chef’s unconventional self.

“I am a non-conformist, I always question and try to be different and push boundaries, not changing food from what it is. I respect food and ingredients and try to bring the best out of it and also add an artistic approach,” Mabaso says. “I want customers to marvel at what they are eating: at the combination of ingredients. I want the food we serve to evoke wonderful emotions — from how the flavours combine to how it’s presented on the table. After all food is more than filling tummies.”

I want the food we serve to evoke wonderful emotions — from how the flavours combine to how it’s presented on the table

Working in Paris was a game changer for Mabaso, especially considering the city’s strong food culture. Mabaso also regards his year in Miami and five years in New York as being instrumental in igniting his entrepreneurial spirit, which is why he returned home and opted to go into business with his current concept.

What sets Mabaso apart is that he does not just produce a menu. For him, it’s a creative journey, as shown by his ideation process for creating the menu for the Bombay Sapphire The Grand Journey fine-dining experience. Johannesburg joins London, Amsterdam, Madrid, and Moscow for this experience, and Mabaso will be preparing a four-course meal with an arresting taste and narrative, paired with innovative gin mixes.

“The four-course meal is the grand journey. Each course represents the botanicals used to make the gin,” he says. “I wanted to make it look like the spice trade that started from Europe to Asia, but will do it in reverse. So the starters are from China. I’m literally cooking with all those botanicals and getting flavours from those regions.”

A crockery collection is in development, and an Asian food tour is on the horizon. As Mabaso peers into the future, he sees his restaurant changing the way we eat. The culinary club may not provide lush views nor offer an outdoor table or balcony, but it has all the ingredients of a convivial setting. There are also some novel propositions, such as cooking Fridays, when guests get to prepare their first course with the chef.

“I am not into molecular gastronomy, but there are a lot of things you can do naturally with food. I’d like people to start stepping into that. Gem ingredients transform meals,” Mabaso says. “I have considered reinterpreting South African cuisine. But this will happen further on: I’m still young in my career and maybe it is something I will end off with.” 

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