It is said that you should never trust a skinny chef. Wandile Mabaso is not fat, but he’s cooked in Paris and is making cooking an art.
FORBES AFRICA is slightly early for the interview and photoshoot at the SA Culinary Club in Bryanston, Johannesburg. The owner tells us the chef is running a bit late and, also, that he didn’t take him seriously when he walked in one day wearing shorts asking to cook for them.
He finally arrives in jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers looking young and far from the fat chef one would expect. He is short and slim and has cooked for everyone, from Jay-Z to the president of Nigeria.
As we begin our conversation, he jokes that every article on him starts in Soweto; a vibrant township south of Johannesburg where he was born and bred. He grew up in different parts of South Africa, going to different schools, but in his early teenage years he knew he loved the kitchen.
Chef Wandile Mabaso, South Africa’s French cuisine ambassador, cooked his first meal for his family at the age of 14. His father didn’t understand, nor approve, of him being a chef because at the time it wasn’t a job for black people. The misnomer faded and Mabaso started traveling; exploring and making money cooking.
“After high school I went to a hotel school; did a hotel degree. I found myself a job on a small private cruise ship in the Mediterranean. So I spent a lot of time in Italy, around Scandinavia, Barcelona, Monaco,” he recalls.
It was Mabaso’s first time outside of South Africa and he didn’t know what to expect, but he was in his early 20s and very excited. On his return, Mabaso furthered his studies and went for a culinary degree where he was offered a job in the United States while studying. He didn’t look back and went straight to Miami, where he spent 18 months and from there headed to New York, where he was trained in classical French cuisine. He has worked for many famous French chefs and was mentored by the world-famous Chef Olivier Reginensi.
Mabaso was more eager and passionate than the rest of the class when cooking; trying new things was his ideology. He stood out and was handpicked over the other chefs who were more shy, unsure or scared.
“I worked at Daniel, I worked at Le Bernardin, which are all two-star, three-star Michelin restaurants, at least top 20 in the world. I worked in a whole lot of high-end places in Manhattan, probably all these restaurants are at least in the top 50 in the world,” he says.
When he cooks, it’s professional; it’s rare for him to cook the same dish again. His training made him creative.
He has cooked for Jay-Z, Beyoncé, presidents and NBA stars in Paris.
“People are fascinated by cooking for celebrities, for me it means nothing, in a sense we’re all people, whether you a celebrity or a guy helping park cars. Chances are people like Beyoncé just like fried chicken and the average guy has a better palate than Jay-Z. It doesn’t mean cooking for Jay-Z is the ultimate person to cook for. I’m not about showing off,” says Mabaso with a straight face.
There’s a culture of collecting knives among chefs in New York. Before Mabaso left the Big Apple for Paris, he was gifted with a Misono knife (handcrafted Japanese chef’s knives), by Chef Reginensi, engraved with his name. The knife is worth $420.52 and he treasures it.
In 2017, Mabaso was in partnership with Carrol Boyes; a renowned cutlery and crockery artist and designer. He served all his food on Carrol Boyes plates on a sold-out tour he took across South Africa.
“I would have a class where I would invite junior chefs or students and show cooking techniques. From there I’d choose one, two or three kids to come work with me for the dinner. At the end we put out a bursary where I choose two from the whole tour to go work in Paris at a three-star Michelin restaurant,” he says.
The tour ended in Cape Town and two learners will be undergoing French speaking lessons for three months with the French Institute of South Africa and the French Embassy before leaving, and will be funded by Mabaso and other chefs in France.
Next, Mabaso will be collaborating with a South African artist on a cutlery and crockery range. The artist will work on the plate and Mabaso will serve on it in 2018.
“It’s art and food combined.”
Mabaso was out of the country for nine years and missed traditional South African food. Tripe is one of his favorite childhood memories and he says he prefers street food over haute cuisine. He doesn’t like Johannesburg’s central business district because there is “no sanitation, no cleanliness and you can’t cook like that,” he says.
“The best I have experienced is a falafel in Paris, it’s just this place man. They sell shawarmas for 10 euros but there’s always a line, sometimes about 800 meters long, every day, and it’s Algerian guys doing it in Paris.”
Mabaso started in Soweto, traveled and cooked for VIPs globally. Now he’s back in South Africa, sharing his skills with younger chefs, and hopes to have long queues outside his restaurant one day.