SALT, WATER, FIRE
Food and the Circle of Life in fine balance
Thabiso Khumalo calls himself a foraging Africa chef. When the virus pulled the rug, he refocused his Zulu cuisine vision – among other things. He’s high-energy, witty, beguiling, passionate. A work in progress…
The first time I call Thabiso Khumalo for our scheduled interview I reach him “in the midst of the fire”. His words. He is “prepping for a lunch and a dinner happening today”. I call him for our second scheduled interview five hours later. Hear hectic shouting and clattering in the background. Ask him, “Where are you?”
“At the Pinetown taxi rank,” he says. He’s heading home, where he tells me he will be all of the next day. And so, third time lucky. Here we are. No fire. No din. Just a homely hubbub. Kids hollering. And is that a chicken clucking? A goat bleating? Or do I imagine the animals because he puts them in the picture he describes of his Covid-19 retreat. His paternal grandparents’ (uGogo and uMkhulu) home in the hills near Inanda Dam. This is where he decided to base himself – to consult, flesh out his culinary vision and make collaborative forays from – when lockdown hit. Not that he had a clear plan when the virus and its knock-ons pulled the rug from under us all. In Khumalo’s case, when hip, hot and happening Max’s Lifestyle Village in Umlazi, where he was head chef, was forced into a corona hiatus, leaving him… Well, let’s see.
Max Mqadi’s place, where Khumalo was working, has been in evolution for more than a dozen years. Since back when the township-entrepreneur-success-story opened a butchery and shisa nyama in a one-room shack in front of former taxi rank. In April 2009 the transition began. That’s when Mqadi started formal construction on phase one of his vision: to become one of South Africa’s top venues.
It seems reasonable to infer he outdid himself given that in September 2016 Max’s Lifestyle was one of just three South African eateries, the others being The Pot Luck Club in Cape Town and East Head Café in Knysna, listed in Condé Nast Traveler’s Where in the World to Eat. Max’s Lifestyle lauded alongside famous names including Noma in Copenhagen, The River Café in London, Paul Bocuse in Lyon, White Rabbit in Moscow, Elkano in Getaria (Spain) and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. With readers advised to visit the Umlazi spot for “amazing South African-style grilled meat”.
Khumalo’s brief when he joined Max’s Lifestyle as head chef was to raise the bar on their fine dining Zulu cuisine.
He had been there a year and had recrafted the menu to include his refined versions of dishes such as umgxabiso (tripe) served with amadombolo (dumplings) and umleqo (traditional chicken) and ujeqe (steam bread) when lockdown hit and he was laid off.
The week before last month’s virtual Durban July, that usually well-attended highlight on the South African horse racing calendar, Khumalo was asked to make a guest appearance and prepare his fine dining authentic Zulu rendition of tripe for a Max’s Lifestyle spot on the Durban Tourism events schedule.
“You’ve got to meet this guy,” says Marco Nico, who we featured in TGIFood at the start of lockdown. Nico had asked a merry band of friends, including a couple of chefs, on a sardine run expedition. Essentially a day at the beach where everyone would learn to make boquerones, Spanish tapas anchovies – or sanchovies as he calls them.
It was Khumalo’s first big-shoal day and he was inspired, way beyond the sardines. Not least by Nico’s foraging.
To backtrack and give an idea of Khumalo’s culinary path prior to Max’s Lifestyle, his grandfather on his mom’s side, a line cook on cruise ships, died young. But perhaps influenced by him, his mom became – still is – an enthusiastic home cook. Musing on his interest in food, Khumalo reckons it was from her he got “the passion spring”.
While a pupil at Queensburgh Boys High School in Durban and living in Umlazi, he became known among his school buddies for his creative sandwich-making. “Sort of fast-food style and different combinations.” He also started to help out at the community church. Because they ran a catering company.
He began by volunteering. After not too long, they gave him his first job. Which the high-energy, witty, beguiling 25-year-old storyteller-chef says essentially involved “chopping, chopping and more chopping”.
Regardless, the more time he spent in his mom’s kitchen and the church kitchen, the more motivated he became. So when career day came at his high school and he learned about the courses offered by the International Hotel School in Westville, the student was ready.
At the time, the establishment was still offering what he chose to do: a one-year intensive Christina Martin Culinary Arts programme, named for the celebrated Durban culinary school legend who died in 2012.
Hotel school was no easy ride. “It was a big risk for my family, sending me. They never believed cooking would take care of a family. And the programme was expensive.”
But they were supportive. He signed on. Hung in, completed the diploma, got the qualification. And along the way fell behind on the fees. Couldn’t get his certificate until he’d squared up.
Sidetracked by necessity he managed to get a job at Woolworths. Spent a year with them. “Packing clothes, mainly.” Paid what he owed. Got the piece of paper he knew he needed to be “taken seriously” as a chef. And was on his way.
Khumalo says he knows how well you cook isn’t about the school. “It’s about the passion and making magic out of it.”
In his case, passion served up with a healthy dollop of entrepreneurship.
He launched his brand, Blu Roc Kitchen [@blurockitchen on Instagram], as the first step on his culinary path.
The name choice? “It’s about flavour,” he says. “You know Blue Rock cheese?”
Natch, there is a story.
“I grew up eating Cheddar and Gouda. There was this one time my gran thought she was buying us Babybel Gouda. She can’t see too well and by mistake bought (Roquefort-style) Blue Rock. Everyone at home was offended. How could she waste all that money on something that had expired.”
He tried it and “I loved it. It’s one of the things that inspired my school sandwiches.”
He decided Blue Roc (he dropped the “k”) would be the name of the fledgling pop-up fast-food business, his first, that he ran for five months in 2017 at Curiocity hostel in the then newly revamped Ambassador House in downtown Durban. “I was having fun with food but the pop-up was a crazy roller coaster, getting there, setting up.” Making his creative version of fast-foods for backpackers and those who lived and worked in the area.
It was then that he developed his signature “gqom burger” that he will tell you about with gleeful pride. Rich and savoury with onion marmalade and Rajah spicing and a burger patty stuffed with Blue Rock. Gqom for those wondering, as I was, named for a genre of electronic dance music that emerged in the early 2010s from Durban.
Now to zip through the culinary creds of this work-in-progress, which is how I came to think of Khumalo as we connected and reconnected for this piece.
While running his pop-up he met Chef Scott, a private chef active in and around Durban who, during the few months they worked side-by-side, “opened my eyes to fine dining” and the importance of curating his recipes.
He then spent a year in Chef John Moatshe’s labyrinthian network of kitchens in the basement of Durban’s International Convention Centre. “I knew it was important to work with proper chefs in a formal environment where the recipes are standardised.” And to learn to follow and understand recipes so you can use them as a foundation, have some fun with them and develop your own.
Next there was a stint as chef de partie at Audacia Manor boutique hotel in Morningside, with a focus on à la carte and functions. Followed by a few months at what, pre-Covid-19, was the trendy rooftop-dining Views at Twenty5.
On to Max’s after that, his vision and nagging interest through the journey, given that he sees food as an expression of culture and communication, being traditional Zulu cuisine, which he has been focusing on and developing since lockdown.
“I hadn’t heard the English word ‘foraging’ before my day on the beach with the sardines, although it was something I’ve long done and something I know many ethnic cultures do,” says Khumalo. “It is the traditional Zulu way. Largely lost.” Part of what he’s intent on reclaiming, sharing, modernising – with relevant input from French and other cuisines he’s experimented with and learned about as well as all the influences he’s had and no doubt will continue to have.
Khumalo’s bigger-picture vision includes getting hospitality included as a subject on the school syllabus. Specifically at an Umlazi school near where he used to live “that has had no upliftment to date”.
Back to Nico. He, of course, is one of Durban’s best-known foraging chefs. With him and Khumalo on the beach on sardine day was Johannes Richter, recognised as one of KZN’s top chefs for his kitchen at Living Room at Summerhill Estate, known as one of the best places in and around Durban to eat beautiful food. A feature is that he sources and harvests from close by. Since they met filleting and brining sardines on the beach, Khumalo had done some collaborations with Richter. What Khumalo was doing when I caught him in the midst of that fire.
“In Zulu culture we eat nose to tail, which shows respect for the animal. And we have been hanging our meat – what upscale restaurants call dry-aging – for generations. We have traditions around honouring the ancestors where we hang the meat from 14 to 25 days. The family will agree on how long.”
His vision includes recording and sharing traditions like these as acknowledgment of Zulu culinary culture so they don’t get lost. And so the food heritage is recognised.
Spurred by lockdown, Khumalo has expanded his vision and practice around developing a refined Zulu cuisine using foraged and market-garden ingredients sourced for flavour, which must come from nature, the earth and the preparation. Nothing packaged and “made for the masses”.
Since he moved to his grandparents’ home “to gather my energy” he’s been able to get fresh produce to experiment with from the nearby community garden, a shared and fenced plot up the road where people rent allotments to grow their veggies. It was from here he harvested the fresh produce for the three-course lunch that features in the photoshoot. And from his gran’s kitchen he borrowed the basket of ingredients and re-use containers. “She doesn’t like me using all her Tupperware!”
To explain his food philosophy, Khumalo quotes from The Lion King on interconnectedness and life and its meaning and how things come together. The bit from Mufasa, the lion elder, about everything existing together in delicate balance. The need to understand and respect that balance. And how when we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eats the grass. “And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”
Khumalo’s gran recently told him how, in history, Zulu men made their fermented sorghum beer, which was low in alcohol. And that one could use the bubbles from the brewing as yeast. He dreams of, in the future, holding bonfire events where elders will share their culinary wisdom.
When cooking, his essential ingredients are salt – “traditionally used for so much, from cleaning to curing meat and for healing” – and water. Cooking his way, with only salt as a spice and allowing the ingredients to unfold their flavours and create both texture and taste, takes patience.
“Skill and technique determine your interpretation,” he says. So, for example, he has been developing a butternut and a sweetcorn jeqe (steam bread).
“I’ve found that how you add the water is very important. Pouring, the usual way, is wrong. It makes the flour dead. Sprinkled in a certain way, however, you need less flour. The bread is lighter.”
People are loving it.
He has, since that day with the sardines on the beach, come to identify himself as “umzingeli ophekayo”, which he translates as a “foraging Africa chef”.
Which is not to say he won’t turn you out a rosewater white chocolate mousse, which I spot on his @blurockitchen Instagram page. “I got inspired to try that by a Nigel Slater cookbook I found in a thrift store,” he says.
Since Covid-19, it’s been “one day at a time”. Doing what comes up by way of collaborating, consulting, creating meals for home deliveries – some of which he shares on Facebook – and offering recipe tips via WhatsApp. Days filled with both challenges and highlights. To tweak a quote, author unknown: “Some men fear the fire. Some men simply become it.” Seems Khumalo is one of the latter. DM/TGIFood
Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website wandahennig.com.