For a moment on Friday 7 December, Abantu Book Fest turned into Abantu Food Fest. Internationally qualified chef and author of bestselling cookbook Dijo, which means “food” in SeSotho, Lesego Semenya, also known as LesDaChef spoke to media strategist and entrepreneur Phemelo Motene about his experiences as a black male chef in the food industry.
The renowned chef left the corporate world in 2008, after five years of desk work, to pursue his dream of entering the cooking industry. Born and raised in Soweto, he grew up seeing his parents cooking and decided to use his skills and passion to share the South African story through the South African cuisine. Last month he posted a series of tweets, paying tribute to his grandmother who he said helped to launch his career. He shared a photo of his grandmother’s house and her kitchen, tweeting: “My gran’s house ko Naledi, Soweto. Where I learned how to make magwinya whilst listening to Mme’s stories whilst she sewed away on her Singer sewing machine”.
Semenya said that his grandmother and parents were integral to his inspiration and supported him on his journey into the food industry, but other individuals along his path to becoming one of the most popular chefs in the country were not.
He talked about his experiences as a black male chef in an industry that the black community has also always assumed to be predominantly and traditionally a female role. He talked about how this perception has affected modern men in South Africa who don’t want to be seen cooking because they view it as a sign of weakness. But against all these odds there are few men who actually love taking cooking classes that he offers once a month and they come in numbers. Perhaps, slowly but surely, the discourse is shifting.
Semenya said being a chef is not all glitz and glamour, it’s a lot of hard work, and trying to change people’s mindsets through food is often a real challenge. But it’s not just the food that our society has a problem with, it’s the hands that make the food. His experience has been one of those stories we hear often, a sad reality where black establishments are simply not supported and black chefs are undermined, with patrons either being outright discriminatory about his business and position, or providing subtle cues.
But Semenya is not one to be deterred. His job is to play with food, twisting flavours and ingredients to give local menu’s a new fresh edge. He experiments with township favourites and incorporates fine-dining techniques into his dishes without the price tag. He also shares recipes on Twitter.
Semenya’s motto is “Taking the snobbery out of food” and as a chef and entrepreneur, he not only provides cooking lessons to those who want to pick up a few fancy kitchen tricks but has also catered to a number of South African and international celebrities. With a kind face and tattooed sleeves, this sought-after chef had book lovers ready for a good meal.
ACTIVATE! Change Drivers and The Journalist will continue to keep you posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. If you were not able to join the festival this year, there is always next year. In the meantime, stay updated by following us on social media. All images courtesy of Mmuso Mafisa and Abantu Book Festival.