For most people, a job and a passion aren’t synonymous. For 34-year-old former flight attendant Tyeya Ngxola, turning her passion into her career meant pushing herself out of her comfort zone by quitting her job, packing up her life, moving countries, and forging a new path with a set of knives, an apron, and a white chef’s jacket in hand.
“It was both so terrifying and exciting. It was terrifying because at my age, people are well established in their careers, or at least well on their way to that, and there I was starting again,” she says.
“It was also exciting because of the prospect of starting something new, something that involves my passion and my creativity, with the potential of so much growth.”
Ngxola was driven by the urge to learn the science behind cooking and what it takes to thrive in a professional kitchen. She went to study at the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy — one of the best cooking schools in South Africa — and it didn’t stop there.
She then continued her studies at the best culinary school in Italy — Alma — and worked at La Fiorida, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Morbegno near Lake Como, under the tutelage of some of the best chefs and wine connoisseurs in the country.
Ngxola thrived in her new career, despite being a black woman in an Italian male-dominated environment. “It did become a little frustrating at times, mainly because of the language barrier and the cultural differences, but I soaked it all in,” she says. “As tough as things got at times, I never missed a single day of work, because I wanted to bring all that experience back home.”
Ngxola has partnered with friend and fellow Alma alum Timothy Stewart, and they've just opened a French-bistro-style restaurant called La Petit Maison in Melville in Joburg.
Ngxola will do what she loves as head chef, crafting a menu that is inspired by her incredible food journey and lessons so far. “Working in an Italian kitchen makes one have a deep appreciation for the profession and for the ingredients,” she says. “The pillars of the menu are simplicity, seasonality, rawness and nature.”
“This is something Tim and I both learnt to appreciate while in Italy: to work with an ingredient and respect it enough to try to still serve it in its most natural form.”
La Petit Maison may be a dream come true, but Ngxola isn’t stopping there. The next step on the culinary ladder is a Michelin star, and her passion is sure to give her a shot at getting one.
“It’s one thing to do something you love, but it’s another to work with people who are just as or even more passionate than you,” she says. “This keeps me going and excited.”
• La Petite Maison is set to open in September.