Chef Mmabatho Molefe has been making waves at her restaurant Emazulwini since it opened at Cape Town’s Makers Landing in December 2020, but she has a splendid culinary heritage that goes back much further in time
In her small 10-seater restaurant with its view of the working harbour, Mmabatho Molefe recreates her childhood food memories from the suburb of Nagina near Pinetown, in KwaZulu-Natal, where she grew up with her parents, four sisters and a brother. What sets her food apart is that it is transformed from home cooking to a fine-dining multi-course tasting menu, combining technique with nostalgia. ‘Growing up in eNagina will always be attached to my food experience because it was a close-knit community with tons of fruit growing around it. It was honestly my mini nirvana. I think that’s why I usually have a story attached to it,’ Mmabatho proudly exclaims.
Begin with umbila – mielie bread sticks with sweetcorn dip and parsley mayo – a tribute to the lady on the side of the road selling braaied mielies, and ending with a warm and cold dessert of fermented maize porridge, lemon and lime jellies and lemon ice cream. The advance planning to make this represents the love and effort Mmabatho’s mother put into it. When you first meet Mmabatho, she is quiet and somewhat restrained, but you soon realise that the apparently shy smile and the twinkle in her eye are clues to her sharp humour. The culinary arts were not officially her first career choice: ‘
A huge part of me has always been patriotic. I mean I have watched every single Bafana Bafana game with the conviction that they will win, and food has always been something I wanted to pursue,’ she says. ‘But the reason I studied politics, philosophy and law was because I was planning to be a diplomatic representative for South Africa in France. I even took French! I thought it would be a great opportunity to merge my two passions – South Africa and food.’ With past experience at esteemed Cape Town restaurants such as Aubergine and Salsify At The Roundhouse, Mmabatho, now 27, has poured her heart and soul into her own establishment, with an all-female, all-black kitchen team. She says, modestly, there is no strategy in the way she runs Emazulwini.
‘At this point, it’s purely just trial and error with a bit more error. And we have finally added a male to the mix. I do want to always try and create an environment for development and empowerment for us as black youth.’ Mmabatho’s concept is a unique drawcard, one which has seen Emazulwini being named African Restaurant of the Year for 2022 at the Luxe Restaurant Awards. ‘My sister says I attach my memories to food and of course I do – I grew up a chubster. I was fortunate enough to grow up in what I think was the best neighbourhood for me. Shout out to mum and dad for that,’ she says.
But it’s more than that – there is another reason. Mmabatho has some-how always felt people were prejudiced towards African food because of either portion size or colour. ‘I wanted to merge that gap for people who were hesitant to try traditional dishes, with the hopes that once they have tasted the flavour of the recreated dishes they will be more inclined to try the traditional.’ Dishes from home will always remain as part of Mmabatho’s identity but of course she’s also a person who is very interested in food and, as a chef, she wants to push her limits and be the best that she can be.
‘I hope it’s something people would respect but I also feel like even when I’m not creating something that people relate to, the essence and the taste will still be the same as Zulu or Nguni cooking, which for me is about simple delicious flavours that I think are sometimes quite hard to develop.’ The restaurant industry has never been tougher and Mmabatho says her hope for the immediate future is to finally get a salary. ‘In all honesty, I just hope the restaurant grows from strength to strength until we take over the world. Of course it’s hard to manage your peers, but I do believe we will create a thriving environment for our youth and I hope I get to work with people who want to work with me and buy into what we are trying to achieve.’ Emazulwini’s open for lunch Thursdays to Sundays, and dinner Thursdays to Saturdays. Book a table on 073 292 7441.
Words by Bianca Coleman
Photography Bianca Coleman
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