IN PICS | Meet the fine-dining chef with a roadside 'restaurant'

When work began to dry up for Simphiwe Mzindle and his partner thanks to the lockdowns, the young couple donned chef’s whites, packed cooler bags with breakfast and took to the streets to feed the passing trade — and themselves

21 February 2021 - 00:00 By Sebabatso Mosamo
Chef Simphiwe Mzindle and his fiancée Itumeleng Lekaba get ready for the hungry commuters.
Chef Simphiwe Mzindle and his fiancée Itumeleng Lekaba get ready for the hungry commuters.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

It would be easy to drive past Simphiwe Mzindle without a second glance on the busy streets of Fontainebleau in Randburg, Johannesburg.

Usually you will find him leaning against the pole of a large blue and yellow banner bearing the name of a plumbing factory. Then you notice what makes him stand out — the black and white chef’s outfit he wears, complete with chef’s hat.

At his feet is a small cooler bag and on top of that an array of food and drink, ready to sell to customers, many of whom work in factories in the area and pick up breakfast on their way to work. Some have become regulars.

Mzindle is armed with a small sling-bag carrying sanitiser, which he whips out before and after serving his customers.

Chef Simphiwe Mzindle.
Chef Simphiwe Mzindle.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo
Little do the customers know that their vetkoek and chakalaka have been prepared by an accomplished chef.
Little do the customers know that their vetkoek and chakalaka have been prepared by an accomplished chef.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

He recalls his days as a young boy: “When I was still in high school, I used to sell fried fish to my teachers and classmates. That’s how I used to make pocket money.”

For the past seven years, Mzindle has worked as a professional chef at The Fairway Hotel and Spa, not far from where he has set up his makeshift “restaurant”.

But when the coronavirus lockdown started to affect business at the hotel, it implemented a shift system. There were no retrenchments, but the hotel reduced work hours to a maximum of two days a week for each staff member.

“My partner and I decided there was no use crying and decided to do something about it. We are here every day from about 6.30am until around 9.30am selling food,” said Mzindle.

Chef Simphiwe Mzindle plates a classic at the Fairway Hotel in Randburg — steak and chips.
Chef Simphiwe Mzindle plates a classic at the Fairway Hotel in Randburg — steak and chips.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo
The heat is on for fine-dining chef Simphiwe Mzindle.
The heat is on for fine-dining chef Simphiwe Mzindle.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

Itumeleng Lekaba, his fiancée and the mother of his two-year-old daughter, has set up shop less than a kilometre away on the corner of Republic Road, with the same menu: the trusted vetkoek and atchar combo, chicken wraps, toasted sandwiches, scones and a small variety of soft drinks.

Lekaba worked as a receptionist at a Tsogo Sun hotel until the first lockdown was imposed in March last year. It’s been extension after extension since then.

“I don’t want to say that I am unemployed, but I haven’t been back to work since last year,” she said, adding “siya gereza”  [we are hustling] as she waved to a couple of people driving past in a white van.

 “They are regulars,” she said. 

A glass half-full guy? Chef Simphiwe Mzindle is neither a pessimist nor an optimist — he’s a pragmatist. When life empties your glass, he says, first make sure it’s sparkling clean — then use your talents to fill it up!
A glass half-full guy? Chef Simphiwe Mzindle is neither a pessimist nor an optimist — he’s a pragmatist. When life empties your glass, he says, first make sure it’s sparkling clean — then use your talents to fill it up!
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

Both have high hopes for a future that may include a small business of their own.

For Lekaba, that’s a mobile kitchen. Mzindle dreams of turning his years in the kitchen into a fine-dining experience in his home town of Mahikeng, in North West. “I hope one day to open a restaurant that focuses on African cuisine and delicacies, like mogodu [tripe] and maotwana [chicken feet],” he said.

Despite having had to downsize from a two-bedroom apartment to a bachelor flat, the two of them remain optimistic: nothing will get them down.   


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