Gordon Ramsay gets to cook with a South African national treasure

Gordon Ramsay gets to cook with a South African national treasure
Zola Nene and Gordon Ramsay get wild in KZN in the first episode of Uncharted, season two. (Photo: Supplied)

Zola Nene is a South African celebrity chef in her own right. She features in the premiere episode of the new season of well-known bloke Gordon Ramsay’s cooking adventure show, Uncharted, on National Geographic in August.

One thing about Gordon Ramsay – you have an opinion about him. Either he’s the foul-mouthed, bad-tempered kitchen devil himself, or he’s a sweet old softie who plays nicely with children and doesn’t mind getting covered in goo for their entertainment. There’s not much in between.

When he visited South Africa to film an episode of his show, Uncharted, he and Zola Nene met for the first time. “My initial impression was, ‘wow! He’s really tall!’,” said Nene. 

“Working with Gordon was an amazing experience,” she continued. “He was very receptive and so willing to learn. I had a fun time working with him; we had a good laugh during scenes as well as between scenes too.”

The South African episode of the series, which sees Ramsay – not only a multi-Michelin-star chef but Ironman athlete as well, who knew? – embarking on all sorts of adrenaline-fuelled adventures around the world and in “relentless pursuit of culinary inspiration” at the same time, airs on National Geographic on 26 August 2020 (DStv 181, StarSat 220).

Under the guidance of local experts and food legends he meets along the way, Ramsay partakes in culinary customs and learns about delicacies and fresh flavours unique to each region. “Every ingredient he harvests, dish he tastes and person he meets will inspire him to create a recipe from scratch, intended to represent the heart of that culture. Each episode concludes with Ramsay challenging himself during a final big cookout with a local food legend by his side, as they prepare a meal together for locals he met during his journey.”

And that local food legend is, of course, Zola Nene.

Winter is citrus time, so get into the naartjies, lemons, oranges and grapefruit. (Photo: Matanna Katz)

The press release also outlines some suitably insane physical activities that Ramsay braves, but it doesn’t mention the hippo incident in the big finale of the SA episode, when Ramsay and Nene cooked for a Zulu chief.

We South Africans know – or should, at least – that hippos are pretty flipping dangerous; stats consistently rank them as one of the deadliest animals on the planet. This knowledge kind of goes with the territory of living in this country, so maybe we can be a little forgiving of the camera crew’s reaction (spoiler alert: they ran – and they’d been briefed this could happen) and how the rest of the world has been watching this incident with dropped jaws, shame. 

But enough of that. What did Nene cook? “I chose to share a few of the dishes my mom taught me to make growing up that always feature at family gatherings in Durban – ujeqe and ushatini,” she said. 

Ujeqe is steamed bread, we serve it with stews. It’s great for mopping up delicious juices. Ushatini is a combination of tomatoes, onion and chillies, which we serve as a side dish or relish. 

Umngqusho is an African dish with several variants. A Xhosa variant made with samp and beans served with butter or fat was apparently Nelson Mandela’s favourite dish. (Photo: Matanna Katz)

“Then I also shared my chakalaka recipe because it’s the quintessential South African braai side,” said Nene. “It can accompany any meal, not only a braai. Some refer to it as a salad and it can be eaten hot or cold. It’s a combination of onions, peppers, carrots and baked beans spiced with curry powder.”

Chakalaka. (Photo: Supplied)

When cooking for a Zulu chief, certain considerations had to be taken into account. “We needed to take protocol into consideration – how to greet the chief and respectfully converse with him. We also had to take into account his food preferences, like the fact that he loves fish and that he prefers his meat well done,” explained Nene.

Having set out to study law, Nene changed tack and went into the food business instead, gaining kitchen experience in the UK before studying at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch.

“Food is my love language; it’s how I express love and how I receive love,” said Nene about the different direction. “Whenever I’m in the kitchen preparing food, I feel happy and energised. I truly believe that food is my passion and I’m so happy to have been able to realise that and had the support of my parents who encouraged me to pursue my passion.”

Nene worked in the UK for two years before coming back to SA. “It was overwhelming at first, but I was so eager to learn and experience it that I soon found my groove and got into a rhythm,” she said. “I learnt so much from my work experience. Studying was definitely something I knew I wanted to do. I was very aware that I was entering a male-dominated industry and as a woman, I wanted to get my qualification on paper so I could walk into any kitchen and be called a chef and respected as such.”

Having her own restaurant is never something Nene has pictured for herself, however. “I have a lot of friends in the restaurant industry who work at or own restaurants and that’s just not my cup of tea – the long hours, the constant stress, managing staff – it’s not for me…

“I prefer the kind of chaos that I deal with in food media, clients, shoot deadlines, approvals, and call times. That’s more my kind of stress,” she smiled.

Food stylist, host, judge, behind the camera and in front of it, Nene is no stranger to television. As a stylist, her job is to show food at its delectable best. “We are like the make-up artists of food,” she said. “We spritz and brush and prop food. Depending on the dish, it could be as simple as spraying with water or drizzling with olive oil; for some dishes it could be down to the way the food is cooked, prepared, and plated.”

Shows Nene has been involved in include The Great South African Bake-Off, Wedding Bashers, Expresso and Celeb Feasts, a 13-part show she hosted on Mzansi Magic. “I invited celebrity guests to cook a meal with me along with a mentor of theirs. It was a way to get to know another side of the celebs we all know and get them into the kitchen and cooking.”

Because she loves all aspects of food, Nene has never boxed herself into any specific food preference or type. “I am qualified as a chef in both hot kitchen and patisserie which is why I can seamlessly navigate my way through food shows of different genres, as well as be a judge in some shows too,” she said. “I have loved being part of all the shows I’ve been involved in so far. I enjoy working with different chefs and personalities, as well as being able to teach and impart knowledge as a judge in some shows.”

And just when you think there can’t possibly be more, there is: Nene’s books, Simply Zola and Simply Delicious. Fans say her recipes are down-to-earth and easy to make. “Keeping recipes simple is definitely the name of the game for me,” she commented. “I enjoy sharing recipes that are accessible and not intimidating and that’s exactly what my cookbooks are about. Simple, honest food that draws inspiration from my heritage.”

When asked about her favourite foods to cook at home for friends and family, Nene said it’s difficult to answer that. It is a bit unfair, when there are so many from which to choose. “I love food in general, so I have lots of favourites and the list constantly changes… I think of my recipes and dishes as my kids, I love them all the same, but for different reasons at different times. 

“My cookbooks are a compilation of my forever-favourites, so I guess I’d cook something from my cookbooks. Each recipe in my books is accompanied by a story of why that recipe holds a special memory for me or how I came to learn and love it.

Dombolo. (Photo: Supplied)

“Currently, stews and soups are definitely on my radar. I’m loving beef stew and dombolo right now, which is bread dumplings cooked on top of stew making the most delicious, comforting one-pot meal. In my first cookbook, I recount how beef stew and amadombolo were always part of family gatherings at my grandfather’s farm in Amanzimtoti, KZN and how they still are a family favourite today.” DM/TGIFood


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