Food fan: Vusumuzi Ndlovu, of The Pot Luck Club pop-up restaurant at Marabi Club, will compete in Milan. Picture: TIMESLIVE
Food fan: Vusumuzi Ndlovu, of The Pot Luck Club pop-up restaurant at Marabi Club, will compete in Milan. Picture: TIMESLIVE

Vusumuzi Ndlovu, a 26-year-old sous chef from The Pot Luck Club pop-up at The Marabi Club in Johannesburg, was recently announced as the S Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 Africa and Middle East semifinal winner.

By finishing ahead of five other local semifinalists hand-selected by Alma, the world’s leading international educational and training centre for Italian cuisine, he will now advance to the global finals in Milan in June 2018.

"I decided to enter again this time around because I wanted to prove a point to myself," he says. "I did it in 2015 but didn’t do as well as I hoped. So I tried a different approach and was confident in the process and the dish. I went for it."

The regional challenge took place at the International Centre for Culinary Arts in Dubai. It featured a distinguished jury of chefs, including Sascha Triemer (Dubai), Marthinus Ferreira (South Africa) and Dominique Grel (Mauritius). Semifinalists prepared signature dishes based on their adherence to the competition’s five "golden rules": ingredients, skill, genius, beauty and message.

"In the first round, we were invited to submit a photo, recipe and story of the dish to be reviewed by a panel in Italy," Ndlovu explains. "I made a dish of aged duck with pumpkins and grains. I won’t go into too much detail but it’s a complex dish and a far cry from the initial idea."

Ndlovu competed against nine South African semifinalists (Bianca Strydom from The Restaurant at Waterkloof, Garth Raubenheimer from Restaurant Mosaic at the Orient, Paul Prinsloo from The Restaurant at Waterkloof and Sheldon Raju from Sheldon Raju Consultancy and Harringtons Cocktail Lounge) and five from Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai and Reunion Island.

"The calibre of chefs in this competition is so high that you have to bring your big-boy pants," Ndlovu says.

Although he had cooked the dish before, he said he still doubted himself. "I’d stalk and study the other guys, wondering if I’d done enough."

By working closely with a "crazy talented chef" he has known for a long time, Ndlovu received constant reminders that he had chosen to make a good dish. He also approached his mentors for advice and they reassured him.

"I still don’t believe I won," he says. "I know I went to Dubai with some ducks but the rest is a blur. It’s sinking in now and I can’t help but feel a bit scared. But I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I think what set my dish apart is the story, for sure. When you eat the dish and read the story, it registers. It also sings true to the way I like to cook every day."

No doubt people have started watching me and I feel I need to keep pushing but I think it’s best to just carry on. Yes, I have more Instagram followers now. But otherwise it’s business as usual.

The regional competitions will continue until the end of 2017. Altogether, 21 young chefs from around the world will be chosen as finalists and each will be assigned a mentor chef.

"The road leading up to this has been amazing and I wouldn’t have done it without the people around me," Ndlovu says. "No doubt people have started watching me and I feel I need to keep pushing but I think it’s best to just carry on. Yes, I have more Instagram followers now. But otherwise it’s business as usual."

Born in Zimbabwe and raised in Pretoria East, Ndlovu had many interests growing up. His career leanings ranged from becoming a soccer player, stock broker or casino owner to being a banker, lawyer or car designer. But food seemed to be a stronger calling.

"My aunts and cousins made yummy food and everyone loved it," he recalls. "They would be the most popular people at family gatherings. Everyone knew that if you got on their bad side you would be getting a small portion or nothing at all."

After matriculating, Ndlovu went to chef school but got bored and dropped out. Instead, he began his work at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria. Eight years later and he has worked at Greenhouse at The Cellars-Hohenort (Cape Town), Five Hundred (Johannesburg), De Wulf (Belgium) and now at The Pot Luck Club pop-up at The Marabi Club.

"I was surprised by the hours and hours it took to achieve a result," he says of his initial experiences in the kitchen. "But I think my people skills are good. I’m able to vibe with people and not force a conversation. I’d also have to say my ability to learn is one I’m proud of the most."

In his spare time, Ndlovu enjoys going out with "the boys" and binge-watching movies in bed on a day off. He loves eating out at Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia, where he says the food "blows my mind", but admits there’s nothing wrong with a takeaway every now and then.

"If someone else is cooking at home, then rice and mince is always a winner because you can take that leftover mince and put it on some bread with cheese," he says. "In fact, if I could only eat one meal for the rest of my life, it would be a cheesy risotto, although I know that can’t be healthy."

Ndlovu’s goal is to cook simple food that is still clever enough for people to appreciate and enjoy. Yes, creativity is fun, but without the fundamentals and proper understanding there’s no point in trying to be original for its own sake.

"No one wants to be stale," he says. "That’s why in a perfect world I want every chef out there doing something special to be high-fived, not because of who they know or what they look like but just because they are cooking damn good food."

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