Chef Zola Nene put me in my place: Gordon Ramsay on his SA co-star
The pair of celeb chefs cook up a feast for a Zulu chief — and have a fairly close encounter with a hippo — in the newest season of 'Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted'
A long, long time ago on the banks of a great grey-green river in KwaZulu-Natal infested by at least one snorting hippo, chefs Gordon Ramsay and Zola Nene conjured up a feast for Zulu chief Inkosi Mdluli.
Their celebration of Zulu cuisine, filmed in SA before Covid, opens the second season of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted.
A fast-moving hippo nearly derailed the shoot by surfacing near the bank, causing nearly everyone to retreat uphill. “It just goes under the bloody water and you think: where's it gone? Then you hear this bellowing off the cliffs,” Ramsay says.
But the chefs refused to abandon their fish and fillet steak on the braai. “If I ran this country, Zola would be a knight,” Ramsay says of his intrepid host.
“My lobola price would go up then,” says Nene, magnificent in a pink headdress, beaded necklace and dress patterned in pink, peacock blue and yellow.
“We're besties,” they laugh and butt bump, like kids playing truant by the river.
On this wildlife set, the fuming chef of Hell's Kitchen seems to be a reality-TV fabrication.
“I'm under the tutelage of Zola and she brings out the best in me and puts me in my place!” says Ramsay.
“Gordon lived up to expectations,” says Nene nonchalantly. “He pushes, I push back. He ran with what I taught him and then made the dishes his own.
“This is my moral compass ... not Michelin stars,” says Ramsay, of his culinary explorations around the world and the chefs he meets.
WATCH | The trailer for 'Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted' season 2.
Ramsay seems attentive for a live wire who can barely stand still. He has, after all, run the Comrades Marathon five times, among 15 marathons, and did four Ironmans before he ruptured his Achilles.
Nene was surprised not only by his height but how “lovely, warm and personable” he proved to be in reality. “Gordon respects and has insights on our culture. He has seen this as a learning opportunity and has been listening,” she says.
Despite his shock at the “lack of enhancement” to the bass — which he caught in the lake — Ramsay trusted her on the preparation: no salt, no olive oil and just a hint of chilli before grilling it crispy. He applauds the “no fuss” and no-waste style of cooking head-to-tail.
Nene says: “Fish on the fire is one of the chief's favourites and we had to keep it simple.” Ramsay bowed to all of Mdluli's wishes: no blood in the meat and not too spicy. No sign of Ramsay obduracy.
Gordon respects and has insights on our culture. He has seen this as a learning opportunity and has been listeningChef Zola Nene
On the chief's menu were the braaied fish, a tomato and onion salsa or ushatini, traditional ujeqe bread, softer than pap, chakalaka and pap and steak. Nene described authentic Zulu cuisine as embracing simplicity, beef and “maize, in all forms — samp, pap and umbila, or mielies on the cob”.
When chief arrives in his white shirt with his wife, children and bodyguards with automatic weapons, everything is ready. The chefs welcome the entourage. “This is your table. It is an honour to have the chance to cook for you!” says Ramsay.
When the chief notices the hippo, Nene responds: “Ubaba, it has been watching us and warning us.” But the two dining tables, decorated with green and gold cloths, are set up a safe distance from the river bank.
“How many children do you have?” Ramsay asks the chief. When he replies five, the chef says: “I also have five, the fifth was born six weeks ago.”
Without much more preamble, he asks if he may go ahead and slice the beef, serve the fish, the ujeqe and other dishes, with the sides of chakalaka and monkey-orange chutney. After a few moments of slick chopping and stirring, the pair present their platters of food to the chief. Putting his hands together, Ramsay says: “Please enjoy it!".
When the family are replete, Nene translates the chief's approval in Zulu for Ramsay. “He loved the meal and said he really enjoyed the fish.”
Later Ramsay jokes that he is glad the chief was satisfied, given his bodyguards' firepower. “Maybe I'll see you one day in London,” Ramsay says politely to the chief, as he glides away.
Unlike many reality-TV cooking shows, Ramsay cooks in real time, says his director Neil DeGroot, and the shoots typically run like clockwork. “Gordon's like a Porsche. High performance and high maintenance,” he says.
Nene says: “Nothing was scripted. Gordon just let the conversation flow.”
After five days together, their farewell is heartfelt ... “I'm going to miss you!” they say, clasping hands, hugging and kissing each other goodbye.
Ramsay says of his explorations in KwaZulu-Natal: “It's been an amazing week getting up to speed with Zulu culture ... I've started understanding the level of respect for produce and cooking with such humble ingredients.”
In Uncharted, Ramsay is hunting for more than food and he found it in KwaZulu-Natal. Even though cuisine and culture are the essence of the shows, there is always a pinch (or more) of adventure tossed in. Take the wildlife.
“I wanted to make it rawer with more excitement, to open the eyes of people,” he says of the action-packed days in the bush, and forays into markets and townships.
Ramsay likes to harvest his own ingredients and he leapt from a helicopter into high seas to harvest mussels off the coast as well as catching the bass. “When I'm out there pushing boundaries, I'm at my happiest,” says Ramsay.
The heritage and cuisines of the seven regions he is exploring in this season are diverse: from SA to Indonesia, Louisiana in the US to Norway, India, Tasmania and the Guyanan rainforest.
Ramsay is seeking out the traditional delicacies and flavours of the destinations.
“I love SA. I came back in 2003 and met Bruce Fordyce at the Comrades. He could have fitted into my pocket with the gels. When I was putting on sunscreen, I asked Fordyce if he wanted some,” says Ramsay. But then the athletic chef realised that the champion — who has won the Comrades a record nine times — would be finished running before the sun got hot.
Ramsay says of his challenges: “This is a great example for my kids and why I still am where I am today.” He is making sure his children also experience farm life and food growing up, away from the “London bubble”.
Beans on toast is our average go-to dinner on Friday nightsGordon Ramsay on what he cooks for his family
“My kids are not fussy,” he says of their tastes at home. “Nothing is worse than making three different meals ... they must have a broad take on food and not become snobs.
“Beans on toast is our average go-to dinner on Friday nights. I grew up in a council house and we were excited about beans,” says the multibillion-dollar chef, restaurateur and TV star.
Unlike the hippo, he doesn't throw his weight around. At least not in the heart of Zululand.
• 'Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted' season 2 premieres on August 26 at 9pm on National Geographic (DStv 181).