At just 25, chef Ukhonaye Mconi has been a guest judge at several competitions, including the DRUM Food Ambassador competition.
He’s made multiple appearances on SABC3’s Afternoon Express, and even travelled to and trained in America for almost a year. And while he was abroad, his approach to food and cooking changed quite a bit.
“Before travelling, I had a very traditional, methodical approach to the dishes I used to make – the colours had to be a certain way all the time, the flavours, everything. I wasn’t very creative, and playing it safe doesn’t give you satisfaction,” Ukhonaye tells us.
That all changed when he started exploring. “I think the first thing I learnt when I went to the US is that even our own South African dishes can be incorporated in other countries’ dishes. I understood food better,” he says.
“When I was there, I was surprised to receive a lot of requests for South African food. The curiosity people had, the zeal to want to explore really encouraged and inspired me. I made them the famous Xhosa dish umphokoqo (crumbly mielie meal). But because they don’t have amasi there, I made a mixture of buttermilk and sour cream in the same consistency as amasi – I will never forget their faces after trying it, they really enjoyed it.”
One of the biggest lessons Ukhonaye learnt while training in America is not to be afraid to make things from scratch. He’s no longer afraid to bake his own bread or make his own sauces. “Sauces are my favourite, they taste so much better with fresh ingredients – fresh herbs especially. They make everything tastes so much better,” he says passionately.
“Another thing travelling did for me is that it made me appreciate South African cooking me – our people spend a lot of time slow cooking and making sure all the flavours develop. In America, there are way too may shortcuts – you can find a full chicken in a can; open that up and pop it into the oven.”
Now as a lecturer at one of South Africa’s leading culinary arts schools, Ukhonaye says the one thing he makes sure to instil in his students is originality.
“When I was still a student, the first thing we were told in class is to forget everything we thought we knew and come with a fresh, open mind. Contrary to that, I tell my students not to forget where they come from. I tell them to bring their favourite dishes from home and add their own twists to them. The motto is to make it restaurant quality, that’s the satisfying challenge,” he says.
“The opposite is also important, people must not break the bank. Instead, buy ingredients and explore in your own kitchen. Alternatively, take what’s already in your kitchen and make it restaurant quality,” he concludes.