Nikita Singh explores chef Wandile Mabaso’s passion to transform the country’s cuisine.
Wandile Mabaso, a Soweto-born chef who trained at a restaurant in Paris that has two Michelin stars, has opened a fine dining restaurant called Les Créatifs in Bryanston, Joburg. The eatery is set to redefine the notion of South African cuisine through Mabaso’s take on his childhood experiences and exposure to South African cultures.
“I’m pure South African, born and bred in Soweto,” he says. “We grew up eating bunny chows. We grew up eating tripe and samp, and I was exposed to different cultures of eating.”
Mabaso notes that many of the top chefs in the country, especially in Cape Town, are not South African and are out of touch with South African food.
“They cannot relate to what South African food really is, and they try too hard to be European,” he says.
Living with his single mother in Soweto, Mabaso learnt to make his own meals after school. He started with the basics and, gradually, cooking became a hobby he enjoyed.
After matric, Mabaso intended to pursue cooking, but his father disapproved. The family reached a compromise and Mabaso studied hotel management.
After graduation and an internship on board an Italian chartered boat, Mabaso enrolled in culinary school. Before he’d completed his training, his passion and technical precision were noticed and he was scouted to work as a chef in Miami in the US. After 10 years working abroad, he returned to South Africa.
Mabaso is classically trained in French cuisine and aspires to achieve the level of refinement associated with the world’s top French chefs.
“[The food is] pretty; it’s got a story behind it. It’s meticulous. It’s refined, expressive, colourful and opulent, and is at the highest level of cooking,” he says.
He explains how Japanese, French and Italian cuisines have taken staples and refined them to achieve fine dining experiences, but we haven’t managed to accomplish that yet in South Africa.
“For guys like me, it’s inspiring because there’s an opportunity to do something like that and be the first to do it properly.”
At Les Créatifs, the menu changes weekly to allow Mabaso to experiment with ingredients and flavours, and slowly incorporate them into the menu. He ferments chakalaka in beetroot juice, tests samp as a risotto base and whips amabele into velvety smooth ice cream.
Mabaso draws inspiration from the seasons, his experiences and the freshest produce available.
“As a chef, my job is to be an interpreter between nature and human beings, so I need to teach human beings how to eat, what to eat and how to transform food,” says Mabaso.
The desserts at Les Créatifs are not just visually exquisite, they encapsulate sensory memories. Guava parfait and charred oranges evoke African winter sunshine; a lemon sablé (French shortbread) evokes the tangy sweetness of teatime lemon creams.
At 35, Mabaso believes he has a long way to go before he achieves his goal. He hopes to open more restaurants and make South Africa a gourmet food destination to which the world will travel to experience authentic and refined South African cuisine.