“Best Seafood in Cape Town” chef according to Eat Out in 2016, Top Chef SA runner-up, Pop Up Chef, SABC 3’s Afternoon Express regular guest chef and Private Chef who worked his way from having “no plan” and just “passing time” by studying Hotel Management. Ayabonga Gope has undoubtedly worked his way up to be one of South Africa’s most recognized young black chefs.
It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in Khayelitsha and I’m meeting Chef Aya at the charming and intimate 4Roomed Foods Restaurant in Khayelitsha as his manager requested. A glossy black painted four-roomed house with a garage as the kitchen and the lounge is a gallery for local art. It is a small and intimate space with the seating situated at the backyard of the house and brings bespoke culinary experiences to locals and tourists alike. This is a fitting space for Aya who modestly describes himself as just a guy from ekasi. As I arrive, Aya impromptu invites me to spend the rest of the day with him as he prepares a dining experience for a surprise baby shower at 4Roomed.
We start the interview by talking about his collaboration with Nestle for the Multichoice Delicious Festival which he will be leaving for Johannesburg the following Monday and his manager strategically placed the interview before his First Sunday with Chef Aya dining experience which would be hosted at 4roomed the following day. “I kind of mix whatever works,” he describes how he goes about preparing meals. However, his recent projects that have taken an unfamiliar shift towards being in front of the television screen as well as having to explain and prepare menus to clients.
After recently discovering that he inherited his cooking from his late grandmother. Aya started cooking at the young age of five outside of his aunt’s home in the small town of Mnqesha which is situated just outside of King Williams Town. “I remember building a fire outside my house gathering empty coffee cans and just trying to cook because I didn’t want to go out and be with people. I just wanted to focus on what made me happy at that moment,” he recalls a delightful childhood reminiscence.
After much convincing from his supportive mother to consider being a chef as a career. “I saw chefs as people selling [food] across the street,” he initially thought because of the lack of presence of black chefs in the industry and community. At this point, he leaves to fetch our starter which was chicken liver and toasted vetkoek. He tells me that this dish is inspired by a meal that he used to buy with friends after school at a local food vendor. However, his twist is the toasting of the vetkoek.
Since his family could not afford expensive and exclusive culinary schools. He found a cooking school where he studied without payment on the condition that he helped the owner. “I had to promote the school, helped her out [at events], and had to also come back to do my diploma,” he recalls. From this, he made use of his closeness with the principal as an opportunity to network with prominent chefs in the industry.
To start his career, he says he was promoted prematurely in his journey at Manna Epicure, on Kloof from commis chef to sous chef. “It was too early for me,” he emphasized. This is when he also met his mentor and “white father” the late Chef Johannes van der Westhuizen. According to Aya, Chef Johannes made him believe that “a white person can treat you the same as them when you [are black]” an idea foreign to him because he grew up in a predominately black area and was spatially and socially segregated from white people. Aya spoke so fondly of the kindness and humility of Johannes and his family leaving the both of us very teary. Johannes played a vital role in his life and career encouraging Aya to live and be confident. “He always encouraged me to live my best life and to always believe in myself,” he remembers. This is something that he still struggles with.
After serving his 12-month resignation notice to Manna, Johannes offered Aya his first official head chef position at his new seafood restaurant, Deckhouse. Aya accepted the offer as he was now excited to finally work with seafood. During his time here, he was reviewed best seafood in Cape Town by Eat Out which is one of his career highlights.
As a result of the demanding professional standards leading a whole kitchen and being a young and new chef. Aya, unfortunately, fell into a “depression” and was “found by a customer on the floor,” he recalls. Soon after as he was about to leave this job, he got the call to join Top Chef SA which he was initially reluctant to accept. “Till this day I don’t think I am good enough for anything, but I’ll never stop trying,” he reasoned.
Being a self-proclaimed perfectionist, the idea of messing up in front of the camera freaked him out. Furthermore, he felt like he didn’t have “nice English” for live television. Having been aware and preparing for the pressure that came with being on the show, he eventually accepted the offer and flew with his fellow contestants to Johannesburg.
In Johannesburg, he felt like “he had no story to tell” in comparison to the other contestants who he says had achieved a lot more in comparison to him. However, because he lives by the mantra that hard work beats talent he made it to the Top 2 of the competition something that neither he nor his peers anticipated as he was one of the “jokers” backstages. To close our conversation, Chef Aya explains that he recently got a manager because he is a visionary but struggles with executing ideas. “This guy pushes me,” pointing out that his manager Zimasile Mjokozeli has been the executor.
Aya loves where he is from and always aims to combine the opulence of his career and the “strong flavors” from his background into his cooking and work. This has pushed him to have regular pop-ups in Khayelitsha where he grew up. The whole point of this is to bring people from outside to see Khayelitsha. In the future, he has plans to create “Granma’s Heart” something that incorporates his rural roots into his work. He emphasizes that he wanted people to know that they can get good food that he serves in urban spaces in the township. We scheduled an hour, however, it turned into a full day that ended with Aya taking me around where the township of Khayelitsha and ending with a sunset drive to Monwabisi beach of Khayelitsha beach where he reflected about his childhood memories.