Wandile Mabaso is a curious person with high ambition. A non-conformist who always thinks different and tries to be creative in life and career, he is mentality strong and always looking to learn and grow. We spoke to him.
BD: You grew up in Soweto, what was that like?
WM: Growing up in Soweto were fun times. I was raised by a single parent. At home we didn’t have everything we wanted but always got what we needed and attended very good schools. Memories in Soweto are always heartwarming and filled with playing football in the streets with many friends, weekends and holidays spent with relatives and family friends. Besides the financial hardship, I grew up with a lot of love around which I am grateful for.
BD: As a black township boy, how does the interest in food, and not just eating, but cooking come about?
WM: Besides growing up in a township, food is something that triggered my mind from a young age. I actually like cooking more than eating. I was always fascinated by ingredients and the transformation they go through when cooked more than anything else. My mother is a great cook which helped a lot .Food is something that speaks to the soul and triggers emotions. Regardless of the food culture you come from, you will always be emotional and reminisce about the food you grew up eating because brings back memories and feelings of your childhood.
BD: Who inspired you?
WM: In professional cooking I remember being inspired by the TV show “the naked chef “by British chef Jamie Oliver. At a very young age that was the first time I realized that this was a career. Later I was inspired by many great French chefs such as the classical French chefs such as Ducasse, Robuchon and Guy Savoy. Hence I decided to get involved in French cuisine.
BD: How did your parents react when you told them what you wanted to become?
WM: My mom was always supportive and always advised me to follow my dream. My dad was reluctant since this was not a career for black people.
BD: If you had not become a chef, what would you have become?
WM: If I was not a chef, I would definitely be in some sort of creative space. I remember a time in high school when I was into architecture. I knew I wanted to be a chef by age 17 when I realized that this could be the job that would allow me to forever work with food.
BD: What is the culinary industry like for a young black man? Are there any barriers to entry? How best can one make a living from it?
WM: It is difficult for a black man to enter this industry because it is a white dominated field. I think it’s much better nowadays compared to when I first started. The perception is that you will always be a low income employee and probably never make it to head chef. I think my mentality and drive helped me overcome those barriers. The best way to make a career out of it is to accumulate tons of good training and then venture out on your own to turn that craft into a business. In New York I was trained by white French chefs who were always looking out for me more than the other white young chefs. These are the same chefs who gave me opportunities to advance in my career even all the way to Paris. I think regardless of color, if you are smart enough, bold enough and work hard enough people cannot ignore your talent but just have to admire you and give you the chance.
BD: Currently, you specialize in contemporary French haute cuisine. This involves a lot of meticulous preparation and careful presentation of food. What influenced your choice in specialty?
WM: I got into French cuisine because it appealed to me in a very tremendous way. It is the most advanced and refined cuisine. All the best chefs in the world are French trained regardless of their current cooking style. I aspired to be amongst the best so the only way to be in that circle was to be French trained.
BD: You are evidently well travelled. How has this shaped your knowledge and love for food?
WM: I think my extensive travelling has given me an advantage. Cooking around the world exposes you to many regional cooking techniques. It introduces different kind of exotic ingredients, I have learned different languages and have also understood different eating and cooking cultures from other cooks I have worked with. This has shaped my style to be more diverse, creative and expressive.
BD: Being an African man, do you ever incorporate that in your style of cooking?
WM: Unfortunately in a Michelin star kitchen in Paris I have to cook in a very French style. I have to follow the culinary philosophy of my chef Alain Ducasse. However, when I finally have my own kitchen there will be a lot of South African influence. For highly trained chefs, cooking is an ever evolving craft and art. Eventually one day my cooking will evolve to a South African fusion and even beyond that.
BD: You have travelled to most of Europe, Florida and even stayed in New York. Where would you say, you obtained the most insight and growth as a person and chef?
WM: I have enjoyed and learnt something from every city I have lived in. However New York City has by far offered me the most valuable experience. I always say that “I came into NYC an ambitious boy in my mid-twenties and left as a wise accomplished man”. It is indeed the city of dreams. I lived in NYC for four years and I consider it as my second home to Johannesburg. I believe a job is when you work certain hours, endure the pressure during that time and then go home and forget about everything until the next shift. For me what I do is not a job. Not only is it a career but a way of life. I continuously try to excel during the hours I am at work. After work I continuously brain storm on the next move and how I can be more creative. Sometimes I find myself creating dishes in my head at 3am in bed. I never shut down. The pressure is more personal and extremely high but the fact that I love what I do never makes it seem like a job. I have watched ratatouille before but don’t remember the characters. The pressure is never external but always internal within myself to be better.
BD: You were named sous chef at one of the Maison Kayser restaurants, how did this prestigious title come about? And how did it change your career?
WM: I was appointed Executive Sous chef for the whole Maison Kayser Group in New York. Most importantly I worked under a very skillful and well connected French Chef who also became my mentor. Obtaining this title was through a referral by another friend and fellow French chef I previously worked with in a Manhattan French Japanese fusion restaurant. I took that position strategically to get well connected and after two years in the company I was introduced to the great chef Alain Ducasse.I now work for him in his prestigious restaurant in Paris and the rest is valuable history.
BD: What would you say to a young black boy or girl out there, who wants to become a chef?
WM: Firstly understand the industry and what you would be getting yourself into. Make sure you have a passion for cooking and have a mental picture of where you want to end up. Then work your way up from the bottom, travel and learn as much as possible. Make sure this is something that will drive you for the rest of your life. I think that goes for any career, not just people who want to be chefs.
BD: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
WM: In 5 year I aim to be a successful brand that is associated with extreme quality. I want to have multiple creative ventures within the food and beverage industry within Africa and worldwide.
BD: What has being a chef taught you, not just about yourself, but about the world you live in?
WM: Being a chef has taught me patience.” What you put in, is what you get out “I can tell about a person’s personality just by knowing what they eat. Most of all it has taught me that we are all the same all over the world.95% of the ingredients are the same, the only difference is the flavour
BD: Bon appetit!
WM: Bon appetit!