Alfred Nqayi – creator of chocolate with an African Soul
Chef Alfred Nqayi was a skilled, innovative and charming chocolatier who had struggled through adversity.
Alfred Anele Nqayi, who has died at the age of 33 after a brief illness, had the job of many children’s dreams. As a chocolatier for Barry Callebaut’s Chocolate Academy in Sandton he spent his days creating super-stylish sweet treats. And teaching others to do the same.
The gourmet glamour of his profession was in stark contrast to the trials and tribulations of his childhood.
In 2018 he told the Northcliff Melville Times that he “grew up on the streets in Westbury and Brixton. I did my first baking at the Westbury Community Centre.”
By 2012 he was selling scones and shortbread at St George’s Church. Such was the beauty of those biscuits (and the power of his personality) that a customer recommended Alfred to David Higgs (who was then the executive chef at Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel).
Chef Higgs remembers that “there was this regular diner in the restaurant who came to see me and said: ‘I have met a homeless young man who is baking biscuits in a broken-down oven at the back of someone’s house in Westbury. Do you have any openings in your kitchen?’ So, we took a chance and hired him. I could see right away that Alfred was a massive talent.”
At the Saxon, he worked with head pastry chef Minette Smith (now Barry Callebaut’s global creative lead chef) who says: “When he arrived he was in survival mode. David bought him shoes and knives and gave him that start. Alfredo – I always called him that – came from a very difficult past and sometimes he felt overwhelmed; things didn’t always work out the way he planned, but he always found the strength to lift himself up again.
“We shared a strong Christian faith and the belief that that light was always more powerful than darkness, so we would listen to worship music while we worked. At times he made me laugh so hard that I had tears running down my cheeks. At times he made me so mad.
“I know I was tough on him but through that he developed strong skills and a solid pastry foundation. There were many challenges, but he always chose to contribute rather than complain. Over time not only did he learn from me, but I also learnt so much from him.”
Alfred’s move from the streets to the Saxon made it onto 702 Talk Radio where he was interviewed by John Robbie. The conversation led to his being appointed a Vaal Youth Ambassador and winning the 2013 Vaal Youth Mayoral Award. Alfred told the story often.
Robbie said: “I think there were complaints about homeless people being helped there (at St George’s) and we went to have a look. I was just doing my job, but I am thrilled and humbled if that small gesture meant a lot to him.”
Giving back was important to Alfred and he was always eager to assist his fellow chefs and members of the general public with their pastry problems.
His friend, Chef Mahlomola Thamae (director and executive chef of TM Innovations), notes that “he had a very challenging upbringing, but he found comfort in the culinary arts. He always said that cooking had changed his life and made him who he was.
“The last time I spoke to him he was planning to host a live chocolate demonstration for underprivileged kids at the chocolate studio. A luta continua, my brother, we will continue your legacy. Robala ka kgotso.”
Chef Smith reconnected with her protégé, first at the HTA School of Culinary Arts (where he received a pastry diploma in 2015) and again in 2021 when she recruited him for her team at the Chocolate Studio.
It was while he was working for the internationally acclaimed luxury brand that he began experimenting with indigenous ingredients.
He was an enthusiastic member of the Harvesting Heritage chefs’ brigade and devoted much of his spare time to promoting African flavours within the pastry profession.
In May this year I was lucky enough to receive a box of his signature xigugu (Tsonga peanut and maize praline paste) bonbon. Each chocolate looked like a precious jewel and every mouthful was magnificently moreish. I had to fight my family to get my fair share.
When he gave me the xigugu chocolates, Alfred wrote on the card: “I believe that as African chefs we need to focus on our food and become creative so that African gastronomy can be globally well recognised. A recipe has no soul until the chef infuses that into it. My soul is African, and I hope that these chocolates reflect that.”
The chocolates are long gone but I will treasure the note always.
Xigugu was the first of Alfred’s many forays into local flavour. He formed a friendship with farmer and heritage food activist Siphiwe Sithole who says that “each encounter with Alfred left me excited about the future of indigenous ingredients in the modern pastry world. He was eager to experiment. A taste of an ingredient would spark creative ideas of possibilities. He had big plans. His smile was infectious. He was a ball of energy, very humble and respectful. He was a master at connecting people, he always wanted to create synergies and see people collaborating. Silahlekelwe.”
Silahlekelwe (literally isiZulu for “we have lost”) poignantly sums up the situation. Alfred Nqayi was a lovely man, full of enthusiasm, energy, talent and skill. He had struggled through adversity, worked long and hard to refine his art and was at the forefront of an emerging modern African pastry and chocolate genre. We have indeed lost a rare and precious person.
Chef Nqayi leaves his partner, Puseletso Masemola, also known as Ashley, and two young children, Mpho and Relebogile. He will be much missed on many, many levels. DM
Alfred Anele Nqayi, 31 July 1990 – 31 October 2023