Johannesburg - It is not every day that kitchens produce great business deals, because the most lucrative deals are cooked in boardrooms.
So when City Press met up with popular entrepreneur chef Nthabiseng Ramaboa, popularly known as Chef Nti, in Sandton recently, it turned out the menu was a very interesting entrepreneurial journey that saw her paying a hefty price as “school fees”, as she calls the cost of lessons learnt.
Born into a small family in Tladi in Soweto and matriculated in Moletsane High School, her first taste of entrepreneurship was going door to door selling brassieres for her mother to make ends meet.
A Sowetan through and through, Ramaboa has never harboured ambitions of a prominent career as a corporate suit in a top floor corner office in Sandton but, instead, has always followed her passions and made a living out of that.
After matriculating, with funds tight and only R800 from her mother for tuition, she enrolled for an auditing qualification at the now defunct Technikon SA (TSA) at the tender age of 16 years.
“I was blessed in my first year – I won Miss TSA and instead of big prizes I asked the dean to give me a job and that became my first job. I would be in charge of filing documents,” she said of her introduction to the working world.
From TSA, she moved to Unisa before moving again to IMM Graduate School for a marketing qualification.
“I had a lot of trying to find myself with all that correspondence studying and my mother was least impressed because she wanted me to go to school full time but, because I was able to pay my own fees, I asked her to give me the freedom,” she said.
She has a knack for approaching prospective employers and pitching to them why they should hire her.
“Throughout my working life I was either headhunted or I would research and call in and tell them why they needed me. I’ve always approached potential employers,” she said.
She went on to dabble in a number of good corporate jobs, including at MTN and SAA, and when the opportunity to stay in Bari in Italy and later Turkey with her partner came, she took it and the cultural exposure has proved invaluable even to this day.
“I opened Bello Couture (her retail fashion boutique) in Melville when I was still in Italy and I would travel back regularly because you can’t run a business with a remote control,” she said of her first major business venture at which she sold Italian and Turkish fashion.
After returning home, she joined a public relations company and then SAA as a corporate social investment specialist before resigning to concentrate on her businesses.
“Business was good, Porsches were bought; I even opened my retail store in Maponya Mall. Initially the business could not afford to match my salary, it could pay everyone else except me, so when it could pay mine, I quit,” she said, adding that at the time she had a consultancy firm, the clothing business and had even established a facilities management company which later sustained the rest.
She admitted that she did not know much about facilities management when she entered the space but was fortunate enough to get a tender for cleaning a number of government buildings in downtown Johannesburg.
“Just like my other business, I learnt. The same way I taught myself in my other businesses and hired experts,” she elaborated.
The clothing business also took off well and she opened a shop at Melrose Arch and had another store in Parkhurst.
“I spent R2 million to fit that store and I didn’t even make that back in profit eventually but that was part of the school, the learning process,” she said.
During the aftermath of the recession, the retail stores eventually gave in, debts mounted and repossessions followed, ushering in a dramatic, painful end to a decade-long journey in retail.
“It was also during that period that I became very open to advice because things were not well. Sometimes when things are going well you cannot hear,” she said.
The facilities management business, which had cleaning contracts for several government buildings in the Johannesburg CBD and employed almost a hundred people, also dwindled, with government’s notorious late payments putting the last nails in its coffin and she had to let go of that too.
“I thought to myself that those were the seeds I planted and somehow I would reap because if I didn’t look at it as lessons, I was going to be bitter,” she said.
She has never had a business partner and she credits the corporate scars she has collected as nothing but her own school fees.
“Looking back I think I overinvested in retail, I should have directed all that money to property,” she said of major lessons learnt.
With the dust settled and the businesses having evaporated into debt, she was forced to come up with a new game plan for her life and, tapping into her true passions, she found the pots.
“At the time it was only Siba who was doing amazing work. She is the reason why I do what I do,” she said of Siba Mtongana, the celebrity chef whom she looks up to.
After a research retreat to Los Angeles in the US, a short course by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey and another course on business blogging, she returned home.
She currently hosts a TV cooking show, is one of the most sought after corporate chefs on the continent and designs fashionable aprons, among a number of other businesses.
“I want to be remembered well; that’s why when I do things, I give my all,” she said.* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER