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Determination, passion: Ingredients for success for two young chefs

Hilary Biller spoke to MasterChef SA finalist Simphiwe 'Sims' Kubeka and bursary winner for the Capsicum Culinary Studio, Nolu Johnson Ngqondi

12 June 2022 - 00:00
Simphiwe 'Sims' Kubeka.
Simphiwe 'Sims' Kubeka.
Image: Ian du Toit


MasterChef SA finalist

For Soweto-born software developer Simphiwe Kubeka, entering MasterChef SA turned his life upside down — in a good way. His last-minute entry saw him crack the Top 20 contestants lineup; and then he cooked his way to the Top 5, where he came fourth. Although he didn’t win the cooking competition, Kubeka won over the hearts of viewers with his ready smile and big helpings of enthusiasm.

 “I was raised by my mom and gran in Soweto,” he said, “And lots of aunties, cousins and my Godmother.”

“With all the women influences in my life, one day I’ll make the perfect husband as they taught me how to clean and wash,” he laughed.

And bake too. “My gran taught me how to bake and she enrolled me, the only male, in a church baking course, and I have been the only male to complete the course,” he said.

Although he learnt so much about cooking during MasterChef, Kubeka prefers baking. “Baking is a science and with my analytical mind I think that’s why I’m better at it,” he said. “Cooking is very touchy-feely and I’m not really that.”

After the show and inspired by his performance in the MasterChef kitchen he decided he wanted to change direction and pursue a career in food and attend chefs school. Limited by a lack of funds he started a successful social media initiative for crowd funding to assist in his venture. It was his partner, Kayla Domnakis, who without Kubeka knowing, motivated an appeal for assistance to fulfil his dream of becoming a chef, and sent it to Jacaranda FM's Good Morning Angels initiative where the radio station aims to help chosen onesfind a solution.

When Kubeka received the call to go to the studio he didn’t suspect a thing. “I was chatting to host Martin Bester when suddenly the studio door opened and in walked Chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen,” said Kubeka. “I still thought nothing of it as I’d met Chef Jan as a guest judge on MasterChef.”

Never one to miss a trick, Kubeka said he thought he'd impressed Chef Jan with his interpretation of the chef's innovative pap he'd shared on the cooking competition. 

Unbeknown to Kubeka,  Chef Jan had been approached by the station to help Kubeka follow his dream. And dream it is as the Michelin star chef is sponsoring the young hopeful to spend three months working alongside him and his team at his restaurant JAN in Nice, France.

Wow! Kubeka was so  blown away by this generous offer which includes airfares, accommodation and a stipend, the young chef was at a complete loss for words.  Stunned into silence, he just couldn't believe the news. “Even now I keep having to pinch myself that it is true and isn't a surreal joke,” he said.

Kubeka is off to France soon, a waiting confirmation of the details and dates of his adventure. In the meantime, in celebrating the very good news, he’s been doing what he does best, baking. Chiffon cakes are one of his best bakes.

Chef Nolu Johnson Ngqondi.
Chef Nolu Johnson Ngqondi.
Image: Supplied


Bursary winner

It was celebrity chef Siba Mtongana of Siba The Restaurant who inspired Chef Nolu Johnson Ngqondi to follow her dream.

“Siba has been my biggest inspiration,” she said. “I never thought that Siba’s passion for cooking — I watch all her shows on TV- would resonate with me.  I soon realised this was my calling and watching her shows made me want to make the food she makes,” said the enthusiastic young chef.

“Once I’d watched her show I would start planning and prepping a dish I was going to make for my aunt and my siblings, ” said Ngqondi. “My aunt, who we live with, is a little old-fashioned when it comes to food and  prefers traditional dishes and would question what I was making, saying the family were never going to eat this — and, of course, everyone ended up loving the food and enjoying my cooking,” she said.

In her matric year, Ngqondi applied to study law. “I did debating at school and thought this career would be good for me before realising it wasn’t, so I decided to take a gap year.”

In 2016 she applied on a marketing management course and in 2018 found herself working at an insurance broker. In her spare time, she continued practising her other passion, singing, and her talents led her to being offered a six-month gig in Greece  – and then the pandemic hit and the gig was cancelled. Never one to sit around, the wannabe chef got involved with an NGO which undertook literacy training for young children, but her hankering to train to be a chef was still very much at the back of her mind.

It was in December 2020 when a friend alerted her to an offer of a bursary to undertake  chef training in celebration of the opening of a branch of Capsicum Culinary Studio in her hometown, Gqeberha, and she applied.

“After the call from Capsicum to tell me I’d got the bursary I started screaming — it was what I always wanted and hadn't been able to pay for myself,” Ngqondi said. “It was only then that I truly understood the passion I’d been chasing after for so many years and come hell or high water this was exactly what I wanted, the opportunity to study to be a chef, and I was going to give it my best shot.”

Practical training at Buffalo City’s fine dining restaurant Grazia was to change her life. “I packed up and moved to East London to undertake the internship. What I discovered in the restaurant were the most welcoming people ever. Head Chef Eric and his team were so warm; they taught me way more than I thought I was going to learn.”

Having graduated from Capsicum Culinary Studio in 2021, Ngqondi was offered a job at the restaurant as trainee chef.

The next stepping stone was her decision to start her own business. To raise enough capital she started making and delivering food, advertising it on her social media posts. As the demand grew and through many ups and downs, it was her beloved aunt who guided her through the difficult times, reminding the young chef that she could do it — and she did. Today she runs a successful catering business Liyachuma (It is Blossoming).  

Her secret?  “My presentation of food is something everyone remarks on. People eat with their eyes before their mouth — and I pour all my love into the food I make. I cater for all tastes and am happy to fulfil special requests.”

Where in five years’ time does the chef see herself? “I treasure a photograph of myself standing in front of Capscium Culinary Studio in Gqeberha,” she said. “I’m striving towards that same picture except this time I’ll be standing in front of my own restaurant,” said the proud chef who rates pasta as one of her favourite dishes and one of her most popular.