Chef, cookbook author and food influencer Zanele van Zyl is here to inspire you to cook better, eat better and create beautiful food
This month, Zanele van Zyl is gracing our cover and we couldn’t be more excited. With a passion for cooking, teaching and sharing good food, Zanele is a powerhouse of note and a true inspiration to anyone who wants to start a career in food. We caught up with her to find out more about what makes her tick.
First things first, what does food mean to you?
Food is comfort! I believe that food is not just something you eat – it’s a love language, it’s about how you express yourself to people and the people that you love.
You have so many wonderful collaborations and recipes that you’re working on. How do you stay inspired to create new and exciting recipes?
I honestly just inspire myself to do more and better. My entire brand is all about food and creativity, so I constantly push myself to create beautiful, tasty dishes. When I go to bed at night, I reflect on what I did that day to make my brand stand out. I try to make one to two dishes a day and retest them to make sure that they work. I am lucky in the sense that I do this for a living, so I can push and inspire myself to do better with every recipe that I create.
Do you have any advice for people who don’t feel comfortable cooking or baking, but want to get into it and improve their skills in the kitchen?
I always say that you should start with what you have. There seems to be this idea that cooking and baking is daunting – it’s really not! Just don’t think too much about it and use whatever you have available to you in your pantry, freezer or fridge –it’s as easy as that. I don’t believe that you have to go to the most expensive supermarket to create a special dish. If you use what you have, you’ll make your life so much easier!
That’s such good advice! Do you have a staple that’s always in your pantry or fridge that helps you whip up something incredible at any given time?
I always have dried and canned ingredients such as rice and pasta. I also keep olive oil on hand, along with tomato paste. I love the hue of tomato paste and the way it changes the colour of food! I love my spices and the oneI always buy in Durban is the Mother-in-law spice, along with cumin. I like the taste of it and how it changes the flavour of the dish you are cooking.
What do you always reach for when grocery shopping?
Rocket! I always make sure to grab a bunch – I love the flavour so much! I also get cumin, garlic, olive oil, and make sure to get butternut, potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms and some chicken and lamb – I can eat lamb the whole week [laughs].
Your favourite ingredients are inspired by Italian cuisine, which makes me wonder – what do you cook for comfort?
Comfort food for me is always a biryani or a soup!
That is so interesting to hear! I haven’t ever met anyone who said that biryani was comfort food for them. Is there any particular reason why?
I love Indian cuisine so much. If the weather is gloomy, then you can find me in the kitchen making a lamb curry or chicken biryani. The taste, the spices… it all just comes together so nicely.
If you were to host your ideal dinner party, who would you have at the dinner table?
Definitely [the late] Mam’ Dorah Sithole! I know that I always say that my husband inspired me to love cooking but honestly, I used to love watching MasterChef South Africa and Siphokazi Mdlankomo always stood out to me. She was a domestic worker and when I used to watch the way she cooked, and her style of cooking, I constantly wondered about where she learnt all these techniques! She really inspired me to become a chef and I wanted to learn how to cook because of her. She is the person who sent me to culinary school.
So let’s say your ideal dinner guest has arrived. Will you be cooking? If so, what will be on the menu?
I always cook and prep myself. I never hire or buy anything – I want to cook every single item from the starter and main to the dessert and drinks. I make it all myself because when my guest arrives, I will be entertaining them. I am definitely cooking a butter chicken curry with roti and sambals. I like making things that are simple, so I’d serve it with a panna cotta. Food doesn’t have to be something that is expensive or takes a long time to prepare. I like food that is cooked in under 20 minutes.
Tell us about your earliest food memory?
Growing up in the village, we were six sisters at home, and mymom would make us rotate with regards to when we would cook. Every day we would come home from school and fetch water, along with wood for the fire, before we could cook. I would cook bread, pap or even a stew made with a pumpkin from the garden. All of the food was simple, and it was so heart-warming to create a dish made with what you have – this philosophy deeply impacts the way I cook today.
Is there anything that you don’t enjoy cooking or eating?
The only thing that I really don’t like is sushi. I’ve tried it at five-star restaurants but I’ve never enjoyed it. I cooked it once for culinary school and at some point I made it on a live, but I can’t eat raw sea-food. I tried the deep-fried sushi and it was okay, but I wouldn’t have it again.
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Definitely when my cookbook (Cooking with Zanele Volume 2: Find Joy In Cooking.) won the award for Cookbook of the Year at the 2021 Luxe Restaurant Awards. This was so heart-warming for me because my books are self-published, and there is a lot of work that goes into it. It was so good to hear that my hard work paid off.
How did the lockdown affect you and your family’s food and overall cooking routine?
Because everyone was home and wanted to eat, I feel like we chefs did really well. We worked so hard and I feel like the community grew so well over lockdown. Food is just a lifestyle – everyone wants to eat good-looking food and food that is tasty.
What is your go-to meal when you don’t know what to cook?
Chicken always saves the day! I just pan-fry my chicken fillet with garlic, mushrooms, onion, thyme and fresh cream. It’s as simple as that – you’ve got a quick and delicious dinner! I serve it with veggies, rice or mashed potatoes – as long as it’s something that’s very easy to cook.
Do you have any tips for parents with fussy kids?
Kids always want to eat pretty food. They don’t like vegetables, but if you serve it in a nice way, then they’ll eat it. I never had trouble with my daughter because I always made sure to present her food in a beautiful manner.
What’s your favourite street food?
It is definitely bunny chow, but it has to be lamb curry!
What has been your best food experience?
My mom’s food! She cooks a meal that we call ‘seven colours’ and ithas beetroot, pumpkin, salads, rice and chicken curry. This is the food that always comforts me.
Words by Fatima Saib
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