SA chef weaving culinary magic in UK
Mzansi's People: From humble beginnings, SA-born chef Lawrence Moyo now works for a grand hotel in Cornwall.
Executive chef Lawrence Moyo is now working in the UK. Photo: Supplied
Lawrence Moyo is a lucky man. Indeed, it is the man himself who says so. But it cannot only have been luck which transported this essentially itinerant South African aged 35 from the dusty townships of Joburg to the lush green pastures of the English Riviera, Cornwall, where he is the executive chef in the restaurant of a grand hotel.
Moyo’s story is the stuff of fairy tales.
Lawrence Moyo: From washing dishes to executive chef
At the age of 19 – one of seven children – with just four years of schooling, unemployed and for all practical purposes unemployable, his mother was working in the Braeside Butchery in Parkhurst directly across the road from a start-up restaurant called The Attic.
With the quiet desperation of similar countless mothers, she approached the owner chef Thom Hughes and begged for a job for her son. Any job. Cleaning, washing dishes, sweeping floors.
Why not, said Hughes, and Moyo was put into the kitchen to wash dishes.
That was in 2008. And then?
“I worked hard for three years doing everything that I was asked to do,” he said. Moyo was eager, conscientious and a quick learner. And it paid off.
“In 2011, I got my break when decided to train me as a commis chef. He saw I was keen, he saw my potential,” he recalls.
Three years later, Hughes moved Moyo to another start-up – The Griffin gastropub in Illovo.
“I was still commis chef but in the cold kitchen where my job was to prepare the starters.”
Stepping into the ‘hot kitchen’
He impressed and was moved into the hot kitchen.
“I really loved that, the whole experience of the hot kitchen, and Thom was pleased,” he says.
After excelling at the challenges thrown at him, he was invited to the Perron Mexican restaurant in Bryanston.
“But this time in a more senior position. Thom said: ‘I think it is time you learnt how to run a kitchen’.”
And learn Moyo did. He flourished, according to Hughes – so much so that four years later he was moved to the most happening establishment in Rosebank, the Streetbar Named Desire as head chef.
Hard work pays off for chef Moyo…and then came Covid
“He deserved it,” says Hughes. “He was a quick learner and worked hard.”
Then Covid happened, with all its dreadful consequences, and bars, restaurants and innumerable other small businesses were devastated.
The Streetbar had to be sold, but fortunately for Moyo, he was retained as head chef. The outlook down the line, however, was not good and Moyo feared the future without his mentor.
And his worst fears were realised when Hughes left SA, having accepted a position with a large hotel group in Bath in the UK.
Brexit hits UK kitchens
Visiting the kitchens of the many hotels and lodges within the group, Hughes soon realised that Brexit had inflicted serious qualified staff shortages in many of the group’s kitchens. This was badly affecting performance and critically, the bottom line.
One particular hotel – The Old Quay House in Fowey, Cornwall – was battling, perhaps more than others. Stand-in chefs and sous chefs were not doing the job, dangerously jeopardising the hotel’s good name and hard-won reputation for its kitchen’s excellence.
And then he thought of Moyo…
Hughes’ job was to sort it out. After weeks, maybe months, of trial and error, and searching unsuccessfully for a talented, capable chef, he was forced to accept that those he could afford were not good enough.
Conversely too, those who were good, could demand salaries and benefits way in excess of his budget. And then he thought of Moyo.
Stuck in a depressed environment and no doubt fearful of his future, deprived of his mentor and increasingly insecure Moyo could not, would not, did not believe the call when it came.
‘I pinched myself’
“I pinched myself. Was this true, was this really Thom offering me a job as a chef calling me from the UK? He wanted me to come to the UK and work as the chef in a big grand hotel. Was I interested?”
Moyo was more than interested and, moreover, he was required as soon as possible. Was he not nervous about the job?
“Of course I was nervous but not about the job. I trusted Thom completely. I was nervous about the travel, never having been to Europe and never having flown.
“But of course I knew I had to do it, and so did my wife Ayanda. My mother was so excited for me.”
Tragic death of son
Moyo’s first night in the UK was at Thom’s house and there, as if to remind Thom of his abilities, he cooked the family supper. The next day he was driven to the Old Quay House in Fowey, Cornwall.
Tragically though, not long afterwards, Moyo’s young son in Johannesburg died suddenly. The company flew the devastated father home to bury his son.
Inevitably, on his return, Moyo pushed for his wife and his daughter to join him, and his grateful company facilitated the move.
“I was worried it may be too big for me but I realised that Thom had faith,” he says.
“I was determined not to fail. I cannot thank him enough for what he has done for me and my family.”
Chef Moyo ventures into Cornish food
What were his impressions of his new country, the people, Cornwall, his hotel?
“I was really impressed by the people in my hotel, and by the Cornish people. They were very welcoming and friendly, and The Old Quay House is so beautiful, and I am proud to work in it. I am also learning about Cornish food and the culture.”
The future for Moyo and his family is as bright as they make it. Currently they are looking for a house and a school for 12-year-old Olwethu.