Let’s Break The Ice, what are we drinking?
Bubbly…but I also love a good Gin and Tonic
So let’s start at the beginning- at what age did you realize you had a passion for food? What was it about food that tickled your fancy?
I don’t think I knew that I was going to be a chef but I did have an “inkling” for food. During school I would always take out cookery books, whilst other kids took out normal reading books from the library. My mom would also let us experiment in the kitchen and make weird concoctions which fueled my love for it even more.
I have always been drawn to the kitchen but never thought of it as a career choice. So when it was time to decide what I wanted to do with my life, I decided that I was going to be a lawyer- which at a later stage, didn’t work out.
You moved to England on your own for a couple years. What made you do it and were you searching for something?
I had finished two years of my law degree when I realised that I didn’t want to become a lawyer. I told my dad that I would finish my studies – but my dad was really understanding and literally said to me – “don’t do anything that makes you unhappy for a second longer than you have to; don’t write exams, come home and we will talk about it”. Once I got home, I sat down with my dad and he asked me what things I liked to do – not what I wanted to be. I told him I really liked to cook and he said that I should move to London for two years, to explore the food over there and to see if being involved with food was truly something I wanted to do.
I departed for Wimbledon, in England, and ended up getting a job in a Brasserie in Knutsford (a few hours from London) which is where it all started. I had absolutely no kitchen experience whatsoever -and was tasked with peeling potatoes and carrots… I peeled the heck out of the potatoes and carrots – and showed that I was keen to do any task assigned to me. I think they saw my enthusiasm and I found myself quickly moving up the ranks.
I was soon in charge of the vegetable section, then moved to the starters and then worked alongside the head chef making sauces. Eventually, I explored pastry and became the head pastry chef.
Do you think practical experience is the best way to learn?
Absolutely! Once I had done that for two years, it cemented my acceptance for a career in food. I returned to South Africa and started studying culinary arts for 3 years; and then went on to specialize in food media.
It’s amazing how life fell into place for you, and that when you saw opportunities – you trusted your gut and went for them. That is so inspiring. Has intuition played a big part in your decision making?
Completely! After that first year of law, I knew I wasn’t connecting with myself and didn’t listen to my inner-voice. I didn’t trust my own instincts and it took another year before I realised that, that wasn’t for me. Speaking up to my dad about how I was feeling, completely changed the trajectory of my life.
This experience has taught me to trust myself and the way I feel about certain situations. So now, If I feel uncomfortable about a work or a social situation – I am quicker to react.
Is there a defined route to pursue, in order to have a career in this industry?
I think that there are many ways to get into it and not one particular route. For example, I chose to go the chef route and then do food styling; whereas some people are food bloggers and then go into food styling. The only commonality is to have a real passion and love for food.
Some key traits for the industry is to be resilient and hard-working. It’s a hard industry and it is picking up because of all the publicity and shows currently in the media. So for those that are truly passionate about it, consistency, persistence and hard work are the key ingredients to being a foodie of any kind.
As a food stylist – how do you capture the perfect shot?
I think every food stylist has their own style – so what looks delicious to one person won’t necessarily look delicious to another. I think it is about having an eye for detail and to add something unusual to a shot to make it different.
Having your own identity when it comes to styling is very important to set yourself apart. It’s important to develop your own style of “flare”.
What makes Zola different?
I am different because I try to make everything relatable. The way I style things make it look like someone was just eating a meal and it just happened to fall a certain way.
A lot of people are very prop heavy and like to position elements very precisely – which has its own beauty; but I try to make it more relatable. Even the type of food that I cook- it’s the type of food that everybody can make and can recreate it in the exact same way as I can.
I want to remain approachable and take the intimidation out of cooking for everyone.
Congratulations on your book – Simply Delicious, and all the success it has had. Did you ever anticipate it would be what it is today?
No, I never expected it, especially since it’s a piece of me. You just never know how people are going to receive it. The fact that people received it the way I intended is more than I could have ever dreamed of.
A book is a forever project and not something you can take back so when I went into it I knew that I had to create something which is authentic to me.
What is it that you want your readers to take away from cooking your recipes? In essence, you are in their homes, getting to share personal moments with them.
Just that everybody is capable of making something that is really delicious, in the simplest form. Not everything that looks and tastes really good, has to be complicated.
The name of the book says it all- it’s essentially simply delicious food. It’s all attainable- using ingredients you can easily find; and all the recipes you can easily cook – which will come out looking like the pictures.
Is cooking a science? Or is it more about passion and creativity?
I don’t believe cooking is a science; baking however is. People that love to cook savoury dishes, love it because they can mix and match and add ingredients as they go along. It is not a train-smash if the temperature or quantity of ingredients are wrong. However, with baking- all the chemicals work together, which makes it a definite science. It’s important to weigh everything precisely, and to have your oven temperature precisely correct.
How has The Expresso Show, changed the trajectory of your career?
I mean, in a tremendous way! I am now a recognisable face for a lot of people and that’s all thanks to Expresso. Being able to share my recipes and passion with people; and to get immediate feedback like that is incredible. Without Expresso, I don’t think I would be half as well-known as I am today. I feel like I would have gotten there eventually – however, Expresso has sped up the process.
It hasn’t all been easy though has it?
It’s still work at the end of the day. You have your difficult days and early mornings; and I continuously had to hustle. When I started the show- I was the only food person on the team so I did all my own production, my own cooking segments and would leave Stellenbosch at 3:30am to get to Expresso on time, to prep for the show.
As soon as the show wrapped, I would start working on production for the next show, I would also develop recipes and film kids cooking inserts that I was working on at the time.
I had no social life and went to bed early every night but all these things build character and teach you how to survive and go after what you want.
After a long day of cooking- do you go home and whip up a beautiful meal for yourself or do you stick to something simple? Also, what’s in your fridge?
Hardly anything- water, juice, garlic, chillies, and parmesan. I eat out a lot and whenever I go home, I will make myself an omelette or a quick pasta dish. I don’t do elaborate meals at home but I do most of my cooking over the weekend.
Any advice for young chefs/food stylists who are trying to enter the food industry?
It’s a tough industry so make sure you really want to be a part of it. There is hard graft that goes into being a TV chef or otherwise; and it is not glamorise most of the time.
Work hard, pay your dues and find a mentor- a chef who can actually guide you and teach you lots of things. I was fortunate enough to have quite a few mentors which allowed me to learn many different things; which led to developing a very eclectic style.
What is your favourite thing to cook?
Oh! That is such a hard one. Lamb is one of my favourite things to eat- but it is definitely a treat. I enjoy the art of cooking in general.
People always ask me what my favourite recipe is from my book but I mean, I would never ask you who your favourite child is, you know what I mean (laughs). It’s too hard for me to choose!
What is your recipe developing process like?
I lean a lot towards seasonality, which is why I go to markets for inspiration. I will buy ingredients at the market and then try come up with a new way of using that particular ingredient.
I start by cooking, experimenting and throwing things together; and a recipe comes out of that. Another way is working with brands, as they often will ask me to develop recipes using their brand – so I will often take a recipe that I already have and then adjust it in order to make it unique and relevant for the brand.
What we can expect from you during 2018?
I have quite a few plans. I want to develop another book, as I still have so much to share in terms of recipes and food knowledge. I also want to start my own show- I think it’s time.
If you could Break The Ice with anyone, past or present, would it be and what would you eat?
I would like to have a drink and a meal that I have cooked, with my maternal grandmother. She passed away when I was very young.
One of my very vivid food memories was of me, helping her grind mielies. She never saw me become a chef and probably never thought that I would have been a chef. I would really love to know what she would have thought of me becoming a chef; as well as developing into the woman I have become. She inspired me and taught me to cook many great things.
Photography & Videography: Justin Coomber
Host: Kendal Olivia Barrett
Location: Cloud 9 Hotel