LesDaChef is inspiring South Africans to find themselves through food
Chef Lesego Semeya's cookbook, 'Dijo', not only safeguards the food heritage of SA's townships, but is sparking an African culinary renaissance too
The bar for what qualifies a person as a celebrity in SA is incredibly low. Or, as the folk on Twitter would say, the bar is underground. If you've been on TV once or twice and had a speaking part in a slightly popular TV show, you're a celebrity.
Luckily, Lesego Semenya - aka @LesDaChef - has been on television (and radio) many times, he has a hefty social media following and his first cookbook has just been published. So surely he qualifies as a celebrity, right?
"Are you a celebrity chef?" I ask as we seek shelter from the rain at Gold Reef City theme park. It's a miserable, cold Saturday in Johannesburg, and Semenya is dressed all in black. He's wearing a sleeveless top beneath his leather jacket because our photographer, Lauren Mulligan, wanted him to show off his tattoos for our theme-park-as-the-sun-sets photo shoot. But the weather's refused to play along, so now we're indoors at a restaurant with white tablecloths, menus preloaded on iPads, looking for something diabetic-friendly to eat (Semenya has been living with diabetes for six months).
Just being well known for cooking food doesn't qualify you as a celebChef Lesego Semenya
So, is he a celebrity? "Just being well known for cooking food doesn't qualify you as a celeb. You're just well known for cooking food," he says. Case closed.
We meet twice over a two-week period, both times at Gold Reef because I was looking to do something that Semenya enjoys - it makes interviews more interesting, or at least more relaxed, if the subject gets to do something they like.
Aside from food, galleries, museums and motorbikes, Semenya loves roller coasters. Our second time at the theme park is far better than the first: the weather is showing off, it's super hot and it's Soweto Derby day (he's Chiefs, I'm Pirates, but we don't let our differences get in the way of good vibes - the UN would be pleased).
The queues are long, but we manage to get on two wildly popular rides (Miner's Revenge and Anaconda). While we're queuing, Semenya estimates how long it will take us to get to the front - and he's right on the money both times. "You're a theme park queue expert," I tease. "No, I'm a chef," he laughs. "Chefs are really good when it comes to timing things."
We talk about MasterChef, of course (he loves the Australian one), but ask him whether he's watched Chef's Table and he sighs. He's been asked that question way too many times (he's never seen it).
Semenya laughs a lot. He even laughs when we get on Miner's Revenge. But when we get on the Anaconda, he says to me: "Now you'll hear me scream." He roars with laughter, before screaming for the rest of the ride.
There's also a bit of (disappointing) gambling with some rubber ducks. In the end Semenya wins a fluffy pink elephant, which he will give to his girlfriend. We make him pose with it. He's slightly uncomfortable - a big, burly, tattooed guy posing with a pink elephant toy - but he does as he's told. "People are going to make fun of me for this," he smiles. Our photographer Mulligan laughs and says: "These pictures are actually saying 'F*** toxic masculinity'."
A MANLY COOKBOOK
Born in 1982 in Soweto, Lesego Semenya is the oldest son of teachers (he has two younger brothers). He worked as a process engineer for six years before quitting the corporate world a decade ago to go to chef school.
He attended the Prue Leith Chef's Academy in Pretoria, and it was while he was a student there that he entered a 2010 Fifa World Cup pie competition for which he made a pie based on a kota recipe. He won: it was named the official pie of the World Cup by the British High Commission and part of Semenya's prize was a stint at British chef Richard Corrigan's Michelin-star restaurant in London.
Since then, Semenya has worked at five-star hotels and luxury game lodges, he has been a private chef for a wealthy family, has cooked regularly for an American billionaire's son and he was a judge on the SABC cooking reality competition Top Chef. He has his own company called LesDaChef (also his social media handle, and he's hardly ever seen without his trademark black 'LesDaChef' cap).
And now, a book.
It's called Dijo - My Food, My Journey: 220 pages of rich, striking and evocative images of the chef, his loved ones and street scenes familiar to South Africans. Those photographs sit alongside a delightful variety of recipes which are accompanied by poignant stories.
"Even though the photos are beautiful, I tried to avoid that typical, sitting-at-the-table, knife-and-fork type of look. The book needs to be approachable, so it doesn't look cheffy. I've tried not to make it too pretty because the whole thing is about taking snobbery out of food, so I tried to stay away from a fine-dining type of look," he says.
"And it's very manly.
"Even though we've got a lot of fabric and prints in there, we've tried to keep it in dark colours so even guys get into cooking. Because guys will tell you 'no, I don't wanna buy a cookbook - it looks too feminine'."
NO SNOBS HERE
Dijo (which means "food", by the way) is divided into three parts: Before the Snobbery, The Snobbery and Removing the Snobbery. What is this snobbery he speaks of? Chef school and the fine-dining methods and principles he learned there.
He writes in the book's introduction: "Food is about connection. We Africans are communal eaters. We share when we eat, and every traditional meal is an occasion. My goal as a township-born African chef trained in fine-dining cuisine is to ... showcase the important parts about our food: the stories and memories behind each dish, and the rich and beautiful heritage that comes with it."
Though the three chapters deal with different periods in the chef's journey, they never feel disjointed, like the product of separate people. Instead, they feel like a natural progression and eventually, an evolution.
In the Before, Semenya shares dishes he grew up on, inspired by "the memories of my childhood ... and the cuisine I love to this day". He writes: "All of the recipes in this section are as simple and as uncomplicated as possible. Just the way I love and remember them."
The recipes range from masonja (Mopani worms - "I don't like them but I know someone will appreciate that recipe") to trotters; and they include fun snacks like amakipkip (multi-coloured popcorn) and a healthier, no sugar, fresh fruit version of "di-ice" (frozen concentrated drinks served in a tied-up sandwich bag, which remind many of us of our childhoods).
One of the most interesting recipes in the book is that of ting (fermented sorghum and maize meal) with tshotlo (freshly slaughtered meat similar to pulled beef). Just looking at their picture on the pages of Dijo reminds one of large family gatherings, distant uncles in oversized suits and aunts in too-tight dresses, a long outdoor buffet table with aproned aunties dishing up for those in the queue.
I always have to wait for someone to either get married or die before I have the chance to eat ting, I half-jokingly say to Semenya.
Many large black family gatherings (typically weddings, funerals or ancestral thanksgivings) will also feature another favourite, gemere (ginger beer): there is always the aunt who is the gemere champion, the one everyone trusts to make it at every family event. A lucky few will also get a two-litre bottle as a takeaway, so they have gemere to quench their thirst and remind them of family over the coming days.
But Semenya wants us to learn to make these things ourselves, so yes, there's a recipe for that too in Dijo.
We don't actually save our recipes [as black people]. The stuff that we love from our childhood, we ask our parents to make. What happens when our parents pass away?Chef Lesego Semenya
He says: "When my gran was still alive, I tried to get her to give me all her recipes. She passed away two years ago [when] she was 97 ... I told her, 'I need your recipes' and she said 'they're all here' [he taps his temple]. None of them were written down and she had forgotten most of them.
"We don't actually save our recipes [as black people]. The stuff that we love from our childhood, we love but we go home and ask our parents to make. What happens when our parents pass away? We don't pass them on to our kids."
So he started keeping recipes of family favourites. His most popular recipe, even five or six years after he first posted it on his blog, is magwinya (fat cakes).
The Snobbery section of Dijo consists of "the recipes I loved most while transitioning to a chef", he writes, calling it "an essential part of this journey". It features tips on things like eggs, meats, wine pairings and stock, and recipes like country French loaf and ciabatta, mint chimichurri-crusted lamb rack and quail.
The final section, Removing the Snobbery, is where Semenya's roots and what he learned in chef school coexist rather than compete. There are some rather curious recipes, such as umngqusho "risotto" (a traditional Xhosa dish, Italian-style) and Inkomazi panna cotta.
He writes: "I always say to chef students that what we do is called the culinary arts for a reason. No one dictates to an artist how he or she should showcase his emotions in a painting or poem or song. The same should apply for chefs."
The three parts of the book, though unintentional, almost mirror the journey of many a young black South African: what we were taught at home, how we were before "the snobbery" kicked in; that is, before we became conditioned to think, act and talk differently, to be someone we are not when attending Model C schools; and then, finally, the place a lot of us are in now - a reclamation of our old beings and old ways, but remodelled to suit ourselves and the world we live in, keeping the bits of conditioning that work for us.
He compares it to the "African Renaissance" movement of a few years back.
"A lot of people go to school and use their English names. And then suddenly you're in your 20s and you're like, 'to hell with this', and start using your Zulu or Sotho name. You start looking at how you were brainwashed before. It's where [we] are now even though the brainwashing is there ... As a country we're trying to find stuff that was lost, and that is what I am trying to also show. Even though we've lost a lot of this stuff, and we don't cook it often, it's part of our culture. We still love it - we just don't know how to make it. Now it's about adding it back into your life and seeing how it's done, but you can also play around with it now."
As a country we're trying to find stuff that was lost, and that is what I am trying to also show [with 'Dijo']Chef Lesego Semenya
So, when's the next one coming out?
"Hayi," he laughs, before saying he's planning a road trip to Nairobi and that could inspire Dijo's followup. "This one was typically Joburg and Soweto, so I think the natural progression is to look outwards now."
That makes sense considering Dijo reflects the journey of us finding ourselves and reconnecting with the selves some of us didn't know we'd lost; that the next step is reconnecting with the continent we might inhabit physically yet are estranged from in other ways.
"Because our existence as black people on its own is a story. We're here in South Africa, but it's not where we are from. We're nomads, and I want to tell that story through food. I also want to show the similarities in our cuisine, as well as the differences.
"And then there's the storyline behind [each dish], especially if I'm going to do [an African cookbook], I'd have to find real people who are authentic to those dishes - not me going to find a mama who makes it and then just writing down her recipe. So the next one will probably take a while to make but it will be something special."
Well, Dijo is pretty special too.
• 'Dijo - My Food, My Journey' by Lesego Semenya is published by Jacana, R345.