One of Lerato Zondi’s goals in life is to challenge her community and culture to be more open minded to food around the world but, more importantly, to introduce the world to South African flavours.
The 25-year-old chef, who lives in Thornton in Cape Town, is also passionate that no one should be denied access to wholesome and nutritious food and says her dream job would be to somehow be involved in a project aimed at ending world hunger.
“I have loved cooking and creating dishes from an early age and used to help my granny and mom stir pots for family gatherings,” says Zondi. “I saw how food was a good enough reason to gather even the busiest of family members around the table and even the simplest of dishes was enjoyed amidst the chatter, gossip and laughter. Food is also a great peace offering and has always been my secret weapon.”
It’s no wonder then that Zondi has ended up running her own food company, called Otarel eats, making custom made cakes to fit any occasion as well as catering for events big and small.
“I established Otarel eats last year during the pandemic and – against all odds – it has been doing well so far,” she says proudly. “The name Otarel is my name backwards. Lerato means love and I’d like to believe that either way you look at my name – it’s still love. I really wanted the company name to speak of love because that encapsulates my food journey and what I put into my food; food is my unspoken language of love. Energy and love being the main ingredients and I hope that other people feel that too whenever they eat my food.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Zondi is also currently studying entrepreneurship and finishing a hospitality management diploma.
But it has not been an easy road for this ambitious, energetic young woman. After graduating from Capsicum Culinary Studio’s Cape Town campus in 2014 with a Food & Preparation diploma, Zondi went to work in the industry and shortly after decided to take a gap year.
“My first job was not what I had expected, but my passion, determination and drive was a much greater force than my fears. One thing about fear is that it can either catapult you into faith or drown you in its sorrows. Mine increased my faith in my abilities and purpose and after I returned from a year off, I went to work at a bakery and then moved on to a couple of hotels, including The Silo Hotel at the V&A Waterfront and Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat.”
Zondi also got the opportunity to travel abroad and worked at the Stora Hotellet in Fjällbacka in Sweden.
“My former boss at the Silo Hotel, Veronica Canha Hibbert, asked me if I would be interested in the experience and I jumped at the chance as I have always wanted to travel. I applied and was selected with 10 other South Africans to go. The experience was everything I could have dreamed of and more. It was hard work but really fun and I’m definitely going back when I get the opportunity.”
Zondi credits Capsicum with expanding her food world to levels she couldn’t imagine and changed how she thought about and prepared food.
“I now consume food for more than just its matter but also for its benefits,” she says. “Food heals and I know how to heal through food.”
This is a theme Zondi wants to continue pursuing in the future.
“Going forward, I want to travel for food related issues, working with governments across the globe assisting with sustainability, hunger and food waste. I see myself in media spaces teaching people how to create good food that tastes great but doesn’t compromise our health.”
In the meantime she is determined to build Otarel eats into a successful business with physical stores around the country, a not impossible feat given her drive and her can-do spirit.
While cakes and pastries are her day-to-day creations in the kitchen, Zondi is equally creative and innovative when it comes to appetising meals and when asked what famous people she would love to cook for and what she would make them she replies: “For Alex Guarnaschelli (executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurant), who I’m kind of obsessed with, I would make something very traditional like samp and beans with tripe. I think she would be open to the experience.
“I would have loved to have cooked for the late Dorah Sithole, an icon and a great pioneer for young black female chefs. I would make her my cauliflower steak with a cauliflower crumble, pickled cauliflower and honey chipotle roasted cauliflower medley with a spinach pesto.
“Jamie Oliver, because I love his approach to food. He is so authentic and unique and he keeps it real. I love using ingredients to their full potential and I love watching him do the same. I would make any and everything on the braai for him to showcase different techniques and cooking methods on the fire.
“Lauryn Hill, because her music has fed my soul for so many years and I hope that my food could do the same for her. I would make her a spicy seafood paella with mussels, prawns, line fish, lobster, topped with a little creme fraiche and crispy veg.
“Finally, I’d love to cook for Presidents and kings – at home and abroad – exploring their preferred cuisines and introducing them to my spin on their favourite dishes.”
While we may not be lucky enough to have food cooked for us by Zondi, she has shared her recipe for Amadumbe Crisps which she came up with when her little sisters didn’t quite appreciate the texture of one of her favourite root vegetables.
“Cooking food using different techniques not only helps change the structure, but also has a great influence on how foods tastes. A great way to introduce your children to various vegetables is to adapt the cooking method and incorporate vegetables in sneaky ways. This is one of them.”
1 can whole peeled tomato
1 clove fresh garlic, crushed
½ sprig of rosemary
1 onion, chopped
Salt & pepper
Thoroughly wash the madumbe.
In a bowl of cold water peel the vegetable with a peeler and discard the skin.
Shave the vegetable using a peeler or mandolin if you have until you have fine strips/shavings
Rinse shavings in cold water until water runs clear.
Pat shavings dry using a kitchen paper towel making sure they are as dry as possible.
Heat oil in a pot over medium temperature. Test the oil by dropping in a peel. When it starts to sizzle this means the oil is ready.
Drop a handful of peels in the oil at a time, moving them around with a slotted spoon.
Once they are crispy remove from the oil and drain on a dry paper towel.
Lightly season with salt and pepper.
For the sauce:
Sauté the chopped onion, garlic and rosemary in a little oil.
Once onions are translucent, add the whole peeled tomatoes and simmer until they start to break down.
Remove and blend with a hand blender, then add back into the pot until the residual liquid starts to reduce into a thicker paste.
Add siracha and salt to taste.