Twenty-year-old Owami Mhlongo grew up in Pinetown KZN. She describes her childhood as having been “rocky” and this resulted in her spending a lot of time with her aunt and grandmother. It is from here though that she traces her love of food.
Now a practitioner in a fine-dining establishment, her earliest food memories are of curries, ikota and amagwinya. While her gran would treat her to local eats from the corner spaza store, Owami’s aunt gave her some of her first lessons in cooking.
“The thought of food would excite me, especially the thought of trying something new,” she says.
Once she was allowed to cook on her own, she used the food channel to guide her blossoming passion
“It was me and the TV screen. That was how I started – channel 175. The Food Network channel was my entire life. I started to notice patterns and processes and applied them in my own cooking and baking.”
Her high school did not offer cooking classes, so it was only after finishing that Owami joined the International Hotel School in Durban where she received her professional training.
Her food philosophy
Her philosophy is to be better than she was yesterday; even if this only means chopping an onion more finely.
“For me, my passion for food is everything. And my drive and my will to be better than I was yesterday is what keeps me going. I refuse to be stagnant; I refuse to be beaten down to a point where I give up.”
As a pastry chef, she says, the base of your craft is maths, ratios and chemistry: “It’s a more complicated, more detailed, and more specific version of food creation; because when you bake, you can’t really add a little bit of this and a little bit of that and hope that it’ll come out the way that you want it to be. Everything is based on ratios. Everything you do has some sort of mathematical calculation tied to it”. While she enjoys the added “layers” that come with pastry, she believes that it forces her to be a lot more creative.
“It pushes me to use these mathematical bases and kind of manipulate them to what I want them to be. And I’ve always felt like I can be more creative when it comes to pastry. I enjoy making plated desserts, multi-layered desserts and desserts with many elements.”
“Beautiful” is how Owami describes her current restaurant. She works at Summerhill Estate’s LivingRoom. “The food that they make at LivingRoom is on another level,” says Owami.
“In Durban, LivingRoom is undoubtedly a champion when it comes to fine dining,” she adds. “Fermentation, foraging and locally sourced ingredients, all served in small portions that pack a punch, is what it is all about.
“The one thing that I love most is how much of our South African culture is brought into the food. The kind of food that you grow up eating – we take inspiration from that, and take it to the next level. I find this to be the most amazing thing, because I always love for food to trigger a memory or to take you back to your childhood.”
A culinary melting pot
Ever since she wanted to be a chef, the country’s growing culinary future has kept her inspired. “It keeps me motivated. I see South African food being taken seriously, being on the map,” she said.
South African food is as diverse as our multilingual nation, according to Owami. It is her favourite thing about South African cuisine. South African food is a myriad of things, Owami says, but it all comes together to make you feel at home. “It’s like a warm hug on a really cold day.”
Owami sees a very bright future for young South African chefs. “We have the opportunity to make our own future; to mould it into what we want it to be. I feel like it’s our time as young African chefs, and I’m excited for us. And I hope that anyone who is looking to be a chef definitely goes for it and takes that chance,” she said.
Food for thought
Owami believes that if you want something badly enough it will happen. Never look down on any opportunity or any situation that you may be in, she says, because it’s a start: “For me, food is an experience; it’s emotional, it’s theatrical, it’s a sensory, it’s an artform.
Everyone deserves to experience that; whether it’s from a diner’s point of view, or as a young chef putting your heart on a plate. So, I believe that the world is our oyster. It’s our time and the future is bright; and it’s up to us to make it what we want it to be.”
Tell us: Have you been inspired by Owami Mhlongo’s passion for food?
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