A conversation on South Africa’s restaurant culture with Chef Ukhonaye

76A601A0-36F4-4774-BDCD-43CE46C641BDBoasting both local and international culinary experience. I had a virtual Q&A with Private Chef and Lecturer Ukhonaye Mconi to speak all things food.

 Q: With Instagram being at its peak and the culture of wanting to be seen rising. How would you say this is influencing restaurant culture and South African’s relationship with restaurants?

A: Most people would agree with me that we first eat with our eyes. Instagram helps create that hype around the offerings from different eateries. Yet it can also be a bad space for those eateries because, with one tweet or even one bad Instagram opinion piece, people will flee. Instagram also helps us see what the other countries are doing or what new trends are being baked far and wide in the comfort of your palm.

Q: What would you say is the eating out the culture of South Africans?

A: In my opinion, each region in South Africa has its own trends and reasoning for their loyalty to the food they prefer most. But as South Africans, we understand the craft of food making more and we are making efforts in offering our cultural flavours on world standards [sic].

Q: There tends to be a vague understanding of what fine-dining is. Can you explain what is fine dining and what makes a restaurant a fine-dining establishment?

A: It is a list of things from formal dining, an upmarket atmosphere/ambience which caters for the elite or rather those who have the money to spend just a bit more on eating out. But nothing casual.

 Q: What is your take on the South African fine-dining space?

A: The fine-dining space and culture in South Africa is still young but developing at great speeds. With that being said, we are expecting European cooked-South African food, which does not sit right with me. Africa is a rich continent with a rich food history but we do not look into it. Also, what is the best service when it comes to African standards. We are a homely nation, not rigid and suited.

Q: Why do you think that traditional African cuisine remains marginalised in the contemporary dining space?

A: It is very simple, 3 things. We look down on our food because it is not what we see on the gram. Secondly, we are not educated as to what our beautiful continent offers in terms of indigenous vegetables and fruit. Thirdly, the availability of those ingredients in our markets.

Q: Why do you think that at the beginning of last year Wolfgat won the World’s best restaurant, yet it wasn’t rated the same in South Africa?

A: Our ranking systems and expectations. Wolfgat was ranked 4 by the Eat Out Awards (also 2018, it was at the same spot) yet Number 1 by 50 Worlds Best. For a full answer, we would  need to find out what Eat Out looks for and compare that with  what 50 World’s Best looks for. Looking at the Top 10 from Eat Out, I can say that there is a common thread of European Fine Dining.

Now Wolfgat does this differently, very differently. They offer seasonal food depending on the vegetation around the area, nothing more. Now that is proudly South African. Use of wild vegetables that grow in and around their coast, most people have not even heard of some of their ingredients.

Q: What would you say is the winning formula (in theory) for restauranteurs in SA?  What makes a good restaurant?

A: Authenticity and staying true to your core food values. Nothing more.

Q: Would you say that expensive food translates to good food?

A: Not at all, same as picture-perfect food; that has nothing to do with the taste. You can have premier ingredients but not know how to put them together.

Q: I’m not a cocktail person and I have always wanted to ask are cocktails more hybrid in terms of food pairings in comparison to wine? How would one go about pairing their cocktail to complement their meal?

A: Just like any food-alcohol pairing, you would need to find certain notes that complement each other. As much as we think cocktails are sweet, there are a few who lend their flavourings from the savoury side. The food world is blurring the lines between what used to be reserved only for desserts or only for savoury hot food and rather mixing and matching.

You can find Ukhonaye by following the handles below and you can also follow his blog for a plethora of his delicious recipes.

Instagram: @chef_ukhonaye or @u_by_um

Facebook: Chef Ukhonaye Mconi

Website: http://www.ukhonayemconi.com

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