WATCH: We sit down with ‘Chef of the Year’ Wandile Mabaso
Describing his childhood as a boy destined to be a chef, Wandile Mabaso has exquisitely mastered his craft and creative finesse into Les Créatifs.
Chef Wandile Mabaso, owner and head chef of Les Créatifs. Picture: Sibongumenzi Sibiya
Just named the Chef of the Year at the Luxe Restaurant Awards, Wandile Mabaso’s bright light in the culinary industry continues to shine.
As this award is special to the Les Créatifs head chef, his first culinary award in South Africa after spending over a decade overseas and in many top restaurants across the globe, home recognition is a feeling like none other.
Two weeks before the Sowetan-born chef was awarded with one of the most prestigious awards in culinary circles, he told us that industry intrigued him from early on.
He described his childhood as a boy destined to be a chef, retelling a story of him painting what his restaurant would be at the age of nine years old, a tale his mother often reminds him of.
However, at the time Mabaso didn’t know he could be a chef nor did he have any clue it could be a career.
Mabaso says he always has been ambitious and as a student he realised French cuisine was the route to go, as many chefs who came before him were French and were highly successful.
On why he became a trained French chef, Mabaso says that he fell in love with the techniques, the history and the philosophy of the country. “We have always known the French are rich in culinary history, for their beverages and champagne,” he added.
WATCH: We sit down with Chef of the Year Wandile Mabaso
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Highs and Lows
The chefs’ inspirations were French chef legends Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Paul Bocuse. This era can be described as one of the pinnacle years in gourmet cooking.
In his 20s, the chef spent most of his years abroad, living the life, jokingly adding he even had a 23-year-old Russian girlfriend at the time.
Mabaso would find himself working with Ducasse and others in restaurants in France, New York, and Sweden to Russia years later which he describes as one of the many highlights of his career.
One of the lowest moments of his career was the dreaded long shifts.
“When I first moved to Paris I did not see the sun for three months. People don’t believe me because I started work at 5.30 in the morning and would finish work in the dark at midnight and I would sleep for about three to four hours and then get back at it.”
Mabaso would spend his days off massaging his cramps but the passion kept him going even when he thought about coming home.
But the longing to return home did come.
In 2018 he brought local dishes to an elevated manner from his French training and culinary travels into the heart of Les Créatifs restaurant in Bryanston, Johannesburg.
The chef says his type of food isnt necessarily French cuisine. While he uses his background in French cooking and their techniques at his restaurant, you won’t find frog legs there.
“Instead we incorporate our very own culture from South Africa. We use samp for example as we have a risotto [dish] made from prawns, but we use samp as supposed to rice. The Italians have created the risotto but samp which indigenous to us.”
Les Créatifs kitchen also cooks with beef tongue, liver, and parts of an animal used for a spiritual reason (umsebsenzi) during the slaughter of an animal such as a goat.
“My cooking is definitely inspired by where I am from, being South African.”
The Les Créatifs menu changes every two weeks largely due to his creative nature, the changing seasons, his surroundings and sticking to their philosophy of creativity which encompasses the ethos of the restaurant.
There’s always talk about diversity in the culinary industry and whether there are enough black chefs.
Mabaso differentiates between black cooks and black chefs pointing out the gap between the two.
“There’s a lot of black cooks but not enough black chefs. It hasn’t evolved as fast as it should have… We should move away from expecting transformation to happen, we should push for transformation, we should be the transformation,“ he reiterated.
He advises this could be achieved by enriching people with skills, knowledge, inspiration and financial support rather than relying on organisations or government to do it.
As we ended our interview, Mabaso didn’t want to rule out being a TV chef personality, but he just has one requirement, “I will cook on TV but I would never act as if I am cooking, that would be too weird.”
But what may be considered weird is that Mabaso doesn’t like eating at fine dining restaurants. “I always know what to expect. I grew up in fine dining establishments, I always want a contrast, so I try street food a lot.”
Outside of the kitchen, the chef enjoys travelling, binging series, swimming, studying directors, art and being “crazy about history.”
Mabaso is excited about what Johannesburg restaurants could offer as the people in the city are hungry for new innovations, learning more about wines and trying out new establishments, “our people are appreciating it more, it is exciting,” he concluded.