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Pitso Chauke: Swapping a bulletproof vest for an apron

Pitso Chauke: Swapping a bulletproof vest for an apron

Pitso Chauke is a self-taught chef from Malamulele, 30km from Giyani in Limpopo. When he moved to Cape Town, working as a police officer, he drove around the city looking for food that reminded him of home. When he couldn’t find it, he turned in his bulletproof vest and put on an apron. Today, he runs a popular stall at the Old Biscuit Mill on Saturdays and has partnered with Afro Bar on Long street to offer great local food and drinks all week long.

Deep in the food section of the Old Biscuit Mill, I spot Pitso’s Kitchen and make a beeline for it. I have heard from multiple sources, including my cousin who drives from Somerset West for this plate of food, that this is the place to go for an authentic local meal. As I draw closer, an apologetic Pitso smiles broadly and shrugs: “Sorry, we are sold out.”

Sold out, but it’s not lunchtime yet?”

Yes, you came too late, you need to come at around 11:00.”

Despondent, I walk away wondering who these people are that eat so early in the morning. As I pass a seating area just outside the stall, a fashionably clad woman sits with a plate of pap and mogodu. As her manicured hands dunk her pap in the sauce, she looks up at me, her head swaying to the music of her food, smacks her lips and says “ulate, sisi.”

I sigh and walk away. After all, I had been warned to come early to avoid disappointment.

Pitso’s Kitchen is an institution. Every Saturday people flock from all over Cape Town to the Old Biscuit Mill for a taste of Mzansi. Plates of mogodu, hard-bodied chicken, chicken feet – and just good old hearty stews with sides of pap, steamed bread and samp – fly out of the kitchen. People come back for the flavour and consistency, others for the accessibility. Many come because after moving to Cape Town they are looking for a slice of home. That is what chef and founder Pitso Chauke was looking for when, after moving to Cape Town, he started cooking for friends.

Masonja

Pitso always loved food, but growing up in Malamulele he was not encouraged to get involved in the cooking. Like many boys, cooking was not part of his chore set and it was the women around him who did the bulk of the food preparation. It was only when he was on his own at university that he had the space to explore cooking and flavour combinations.

I am a flavour guy,” says Pitso, “I love flavour, so when I cook something it’s not always about the presentation, it’s how the food tastes. Making it taste different and better than the food taste that I ate somewhere else.”

He started off with cooking just tinned fish (as one does at varsity), worked on developing something great around those flavours, and expanded from there.

In 2009, he made the move to Cape Town and worked as a detective for the South African Police Service for nine years. This would instil the discipline and focus he would need in his next career. Moving to another city always involves an adjustment period. On days when he was too tired to cook he’d drive around the city and townships, basically for food. It sounds peculiar because Cape Town is known for its culinary prowess, award-winning restaurants and chefs, but Pitso was just looking for food.

Smiley

What he found tasted okay but, he says:

It didn’t remind me of anywhere. What was missing was food that reminded me of home, like pap, chakalaka, mogodu and masonja.

Where I come from you find that in each and every corner, but here it was a little bit more difficult to find. So I made it a point to drive around Cape Town looking for food. I drove to the townships looking for food and I just couldn’t find it. I felt a little bit disappointed, but that’s where the idea came from. How many people are being deprived of food that reminds them of home? So I decided, no, I’m going to do it myself.”

After a tasting session, which doubled as a launch and his birthday party, he prepared pots of food, placed banners around his car and started selling food in Khayelitsha, under a tree. That was not well received. Perhaps people in the area were just not ready for food they could’ve cooked themselves at home. They might not have been ready, but others were. Pitso then started pop-up events called “Pitso’s Kitchen Presents” and sold out on those days.

The ball continued to roll and Pitso approached The Old Biscuit Mill for a space. He was given a one-month trial period to see if it would work. It was an instant hit; he had many people come through on that first day.

A group from Bantu Hikers took pictures, shared them on Instagram, and it went viral. Our page quickly grew, more people were interested, and they were coming to the market to enjoy our food. So, we had to make sure that it met their expectations.”

People also heard about Pitso’s kitchen through word of mouth and soon they sold out almost every weekend.

All the while, Pitso was still working as a police officer and cooking at the weekend. One day, while on the job, he passed the jail cell holding a person he had just arrested.

The man remarked: “You don’t really belong here.”

Surprised, Pitso asked him what he meant.

I think you’re too nice for this job, you belong somewhere where people are happy, you don’t need criminals around you.”

This resonated with Pitso. He’s generally a bubbly guy – he doesn’t like to see people sad, down and out. So, “I took a leap of faith.”

I resigned without knowing exactly where I was going. I just decided I was done. I thought, let me exchange this bulletproof for an apron. My life is a little bit lighter now.”

Now he works full-time at the Afro Bar and Pitso’s Kitchen, introducing people to local food, but, more important for him, making sure they have a place to unwind and eat good, local food that has been cooking for hours. His move into a brick and mortar store allows customers to access Pitso’s Kitchen every day of the week.

Even so, Pitso is still at The Biscuit Mill on Saturdays.

We all love The Biscuit Mill — the space is exciting because that’s where you meet people from all over the world.”

In the future he’d like to see Pitso’s Kitchens as a franchise with drive-throughs where you can get mogodu 24/7.

Who says we can’t? It’s our food.”

For him, it’s a bit more personal.

What about the people who are actually homesick and would enjoy this type of food, where do they get it? There is a need for this type of food. I don’t exclude people who would like to enjoy the food, but for me, my actual target markets are the people that know the food and missed the food.”

He’s happy to put in the hours, go through the labour-intensive effort of washing the tripe, serving a tasty home-cooked meal and the fulfilment of seeing someone smile while eating his food. DM

Pitso’s Kitchen can be found at The Old Biscuit Mill and at the Afro Bar and Pitso’s Kitchen on 230 Long Street from lunch till late. You can find @pitsos_kitchenza and @afrobarandpitsoskitchenon Instagram.

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