“Keep it simple and only use the freshest, quality ingredients.” This is the mantra of Nokulunga Ntombela, one of commis chef at Sibaya Casino and Entertainment Kingdom.
“My philosophy is that we are what we eat. Freshness, good quality ingredients and nutritional content should always be priorised for full flavour and for the benefit of your health. Meals should also be well balanced and include foods from all of the food groups.
“I like cooking from scratch. Readymade meals such as pasta sauces generally have a lot of sugar and salt added to them. By preparing meals from scratch, using raw ingredients, you know exactly what’s going into your food, and the fresh flavours mean there’s really no reason to add extra sweetness or salt.”
Her mom, Thandi, inspired her to become a chef. Although she was a nurse, working long shifts, she always ensured that the family had a nutritious, home cooked meal. Her mom’s speciality is curry, specifically lamb curry.
“I learnt from my mom. I used to help my mom cook as a little girl, and one day I decided I would like to be a professional chef. My mother only uses fresh herbs and selects and mixes spices herself to get that perfect combination of mild and aromatic with no chilies, as we are Zulu and don’t lean towards hot food,” smiles Ntombela, who studied at the Ethekwini College’s Centec Campus where she qualified as a chef.
While her mom was her inspiration, she has also had the privilege of being mentored by established chefs. One in particular who has influenced her career is Chef Justin Maharaj with whom she worked at Bean Bag Bahia for three years. They have remained in contact and he continues to mentor her.
“He advised me to have all my ingredients laid out before I start cooking. That way, you are well prepared, with all ingredients ready before you begin the cooking process,” she says.
Her favourite tool in the kitchen is her whisk.
“I use my whisk for the all the usual tasks for which they were designed like whisking eggs or sauces. But, I also use it to mash potatoes. It really gives a smooth texture and consistency…no lumps, no kidding,” she quips.
Ntombela’s career highlight was cooking for Zanele Mbokazi, a well known TV talk show host, inspirational speaker, author and President of Future Leaders and Crown Gospel Music Awards.
“I cooked my aromatic chicken and beef curry for her and she just loved it,” recalls Ntombela.
With regards to personal taste, she enjoys her meat. “When I eat out, I enjoy grills above all else.”
It is also the smell of a lamb roast that most reminds her of her childhood.
“Lamb roast cooking reminds me of good Sunday family dinners we had growing up.”
Whilst she suggests that the quickest and easiest meal to prepare when having unexpected guests over would be a light pasta, Ntombela also says the most difficult, complex thing she was ever expected to prepare was Upper Michigan Pastries.
Like everyone else, this dynamic chef also has a comfort food, although she clearly makes better choices than most of us who devour all things chocolate when we eat for comfort.
“Veggies are my comfort food because they are healthy,” she says.
This young woman enjoys eating simple food, like a good home-cooked cottage pie, and when asked what she doesn’t eat and will not prepare, her answer is prompt.
“I don’t eat prawns and I do not like preparing crab curry.”
She also has a little advice for all aspiring home-chefs not to make the common mistake of cooking beef, chicken or fish directly after removing it from the fridge. “Let it stand and properly defrost a bit before preparing it.”
Ntombela’s ultimate dream is to open her own catering company someday. Ntombela likes watching cooking programmes on TV and says that she hopes, someday, to invite over super group MiCasa and serve them roast lamb rack dusted with cashew nut mash and some roasted seasonal veggies.