We all have plans and goals we make for our careers. There are things, events and occasions that mark our achievements, that give us that ‘Mama I made it’ feeling.
For Zola Nene I would assume it’s being a successful chef, award winning author and TV personality. She gets to do what she loves and is clearly happy doing so.
But I was surprised, pleasantly so, when she admitted that meeting and cooking with Michelin star chef and restaurateur, not to mention the most infamous chef in the world, Gordon Ramsay, was a career highlight.
It’s December and we are at Gwahumbe Game Lodge and Spa in the KZN Midlands, where Gordon Ramsay was shooting the second season of his National Geographic travel food show, “UnCharted”.
He chose Zola Nene to teach him how to cook a simple, traditional Zulu meal for a local, after spending a couple of days exploring Durban’s famous food centric places- Victoria Market, learning how to braai at a shisanyama and strolling along the beach.
Seeing them cooking together was a thrill and it’s mainly because they had such great chemistry and mutual respect. In this case, Gordon wasn’t the expert we know from his many cooking shows. He was a student and he was clearly willing to learn. And Zola was the perfect teacher.
Was she nervous meeting Gordon? His reputation in the kitchen (and on TV precedes him). Turns out they were more like equals, with Gordon showing her a lot of respect.
“I was excited. I mean, it’s Gordon Ramsay. Every food person would love to meet him. Of course there are those preconceived notions, where I wondered if he will be approachable. Literally off the bat he was friendly and was like ‘Hello darling’ and I was like ‘OMG we are besties!’ He was really kind, conversational, and wanted to know more about me, what I do and my family. He made me feel comfortable. So I wasnt nervous at all, but I was still pleasantly surprised and he lived up to my expectations.”
They had an easy camaraderie, where they gave it to each other while cooking. “We challenged each other. He pushed hard and I pushed right back. It was fun banter between us.”
For the meal they were preparing for a local chief in the Mid Illovo region of the Midlands, Zola helped Gordon make jeqe (steamed bread), ushatini (raw tomato, onion and chill relish), chakalaka, grilled meat and braaid fish.
“We had planned to have uJeqe and ushatini. Chakalaka was just an addition because we were doing braai and it’s a quintessential South African dish, especially when having a braai. Jeqe is a big part of Zulu culture. I had to make it because it’s uniquely Zulu in that way. Ushatini- I felt like since we are braaing fish, it felt like a great side dish to give the meal a kick. Keep everything simple in Zulu cuisine. My family loved to add ushatini to give meals a kick. Gordon ran with it and made it his own. It’s a meal that speaks to my heritage and I felt it was important for us to make it.”
The jeqe was deliciously soft, almost like biting into a cloud. I felt guilty going back for more because it seemed like a betrayal for my mother (who also makes amazing jeqe).
“Even the chief was impressed with my jeqe. He said my jeqe was lovely and soft. That’s high praise,” she said.
One thing Zola found endearing was how much he showed respect to the culture and his willingness to learn “He respects the insight we give him on our culture. He’s a renowned chef and cooks really well, but he understands that it was a learning opportunity for him and he doesn’t necessarily know everything about our cuisine and our way of cooking. He was very attentive and even when he wanted to add his own flavour, I could still remind him that people here like their food a certain way. I still appreciated his way and excitement in trying to learn more about our food.”
“Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted” season 2 will premiere August 26, on National Geographic at 9pm. This will be the first episode of the season.