It was just under five years ago that the bubbly South African chef, Siba Mtongana, made her way onto our screens. Affectionately called the Queen of Convenience she showed off her culinary expertise on her television show, Siba’s Table, on the DStv Food Network channel. The show has been resounding success and has been broadcast in over 130 countries. Her debut cookbook, Welcome to my table – Siba Mtongana, was also warmly received and sold out within days. Nobhongo Gxolo caught up with the former food editor of Drum magazine to find out what it took for her to be where she is today.
Nobhongo Gxolo (NG): Tell us a bit about what you wanted to be when you were growing up? What were you dreams?
Siba Mtongana (SM): Siba Mtongana (SM): I wanted to be a lot of things. But coming from a township, being raised in a black household streamlined my thinking to an extent. I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people. My mom was a teacher and she wanted me to be a lawyer because I could argue any point – regardless of the situation. I believed in justice strongly. I would have probably done a lot of pro bono work and not made much money. Then Madiba [Nelson Mandela] was released from prison and we were free to vote. When he became the first black president of the country I was so inspired I wanted to be the first black, female president of the country. I was 10 years old at the time. I also wanted to save the world. Mother Theresa? Love her. She had a wild and fierce passion to do good. It was a calling. So I wanted to do missionary work at some point.
Food came later. I did Home Economics in high school. And when in Matric it came time to decide which career to pursue I decided on food. But I come from a very academic family and when I pitched the idea to my mom she was like, ‘Hayi khona! – Food industry for what?!’ So I needed to find another way to get my mother on board. I approached my older sister who helped me find a course that could convince her. The love of food wasn’t enough – I needed something to back it up. So I studied Food and Consumer Sciences with majors in Food, Food Science and Nutrition.
NG: Being from eMdantsane [a township in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa] your chosen career path was quite rare at the time – how did your family react to the news?
SM: Growing up as a black child there was no reference point for this career. I wanted a life with a focus on science, engineering – the hard stuff. What goes on behind the scenes.
There’s serious financial pressure when studying food, it’s really expensive. I don’t come from money but from love and hard work. I was raised believing that I can do and be anything. [Breaks into a refrain: I’m a believer]. I had God. So I said a prayer specifically asking for financial assistance. I understood that there was no time to play. I got a job in a restaurant to help subsidise certain costs; because outside of lectures there are all sorts of things that you need extra cash for when you’re studying. Students didn’t apply but were selected by their lecturers for the bursary. In second year I was top of my class and received a bursary from the Department of Agriculture.
NG: Do you have any food heroes on the continent?
SM: It’s actually sad but Africa isn’t well represented when it comes to food coverage. Growing up I didn’t know of any African chefs. There were a lot from Britain and the USA and I was exposed to them by watching cooking shows. I love Marcus ‘’Joar’ Samuelsson and what he does. I also love Reuben Riffel’s passion and his food combinations.
I’m also more inspired by food sciences. Engineering. Product development. Think Ina Parmaan who also did the same course I did. She’s a local brand and an example of someone who took food and made a career out of it. So product development is a no brainer for me, it’s a natural progression. And I think my cookbook spoke to that to some extent. I produced something that I own, and seeing it become such a success speaks to my being a pioneer in a sense – to my changing the food industry game. Being an African woman means that I have to be vigorous about being entrepreneurial and being excellent. This is important in a space which is dominated by men because it means I’m giving hope to others just by pursuing my goals and vision. So I need to be strong. I need to change the picture that the world has of the food industry in Africa… I need to become purveyor of sorts; you need to build the roads where there aren’t any. Being the first means opening the door for others. Changing perceptions is beautiful.
NG: How important is passion in one’s chosen career?
SM: I think this is the only industry I would have excelled in. I think food, sleep food, I’m all food – but it mustn’t show. I do it for love, I’d do it for free, and I’d do it for money. Food is the door to my heart. Attaining your dreams comes with a lot of challenges. I’ve learnt that waiting for affirmation from the outside won’t get you to your goals. I have nothing against getting mentorship, guidance, and advice. But it’s equally important to sift out what’s not for you. I received a lot of discouragement with my cookbook. But I knew that it would have been a disservice to go the normal, commercial route. I invested time and money into the project and this has resulted in a new market for me.
NG: If one wants to pursue a career in the food industry is training critical or can passion carry them through?
SM: I don’t believe in relying solely on passion. I believe in getting formal training. For me that’s what it means to respect the craft. It’s the only way to know what works and doesn’t work in the kitchen. The only way to be able to give advice confidently and knowledgeably. You need training if you’re going to be a game-changer. When I was working on Siba’s Table there were a lot of sceptics and I got a lot of criticism. People thought that I was just a pretty face. What education did was to protect me, it offered me credibility.
NG: With food being such a subjective experience – how does it feel judging other people’s creations on shows like Chopped South Africa?
SM: I think it’s because I come from a township but my palette is open to anything. When I was head-hunted by Chopped South Africa to be a judge on the show I made it very clear that I would not allow them to change who I am. I’m a naturally nice, kind and constructive person. I needed to make that declaration and fortunately they were on board. Judging food wasn’t new for me; I used to do it, perhaps on a smaller scale, when I was working at Drum. The show put me on an international platform.
Food is intimate. And when it comes to it I offer my opinion, which is based on extensive experience. If I don’t give my 10 cents worth of info it could cost the participant their career, or take them that much longer to reach a certain goal. If I didn’t tell them where they could improve it would be a disservice. I want to educate and uplift people. I want our food industry to grow.