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Celebrity chef Zola Nene has taken not just South Africa by storm, but the world too! As such, she serves as an inspiration for us all. We spoke to her about her challenges and successes as a woman in the culinary arts.
Tell us more about yourself and your journey to becoming not only a chef but a well-known personality too.
My love affair with food started early on (according to my parents). I was always taking out cookbooks from the library to experiment with the recipes. When it came to deciding on a career choice after matric, I opted to study law – I thought it was the best career choice for a talkative and argumentative person like myself. I realised in my second year of studies that I wasn’t passionate about law and that I didn’t want to do it forever. I told my dad, who had asked me what truly makes me happy, that I love to cook. He then encouraged me to go to the UK and explore the idea of being a chef, so off I went.
I worked in a brasserie in the UK for two years, cementing my love for food. I then returned home, enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Arts and did a three-year course where I specialised in food media. The final six months of my culinary arts studies were dedicated to working as a food assistant at Top Billing Magazine. That was where I met the creators of Expresso Morning Show and, through that, I got my first experience of being and cooking on TV. This is essentially where my public profile began.
Since then, I’ve done numerous other TV shows and cooking shows and even have my very own cooking show called ‘Celeb Feasts With Zola’. I also have two international award-winning cookbooks under my belt: ‘Simply Delicious’ and ‘Simply Zola’.
You were recently recognised worldwide. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve just returned from Macau and Hong Kong from the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards, where ‘Simply Zola’ was awarded Best in the World in the TV Celebrity Chef English category. I’m very proud to receive this award and get worldwide recognition for my food stories and recipes.
Do you think the perception of women, both globally and locally, has changed in recent years? What challenges do you think we still face?
I definitely think that there has been a shift in the recognition of women in the corporate or business sphere, but we still have a long way to go. I think patriarchy is something that still exists and women are often required to ‘prove themselves’ to be taken seriously in instances where their credentials should be enough. As with most systematic behavior, it’s going to take a while to change the norm, but I’m hopeful that we are well on our way.
What challenges have you encountered on your journey?
The chef industry has always been a male-dominated sector, so the beginning of my career came with its challenges, especially working in traditional restaurant kitchens. My most challenging incident was when I worked briefly as a catering manager for a large company and had a number of male cooks who worked under me. There was one particular cook who actually told me to my face that he won’t listen to anything I told him to do because he ‘doesn’t take instructions from women, especially ones who are younger than him [like me]’. The systems put in place meant that he had to follow the rules of business, which meant he had no choice but to listen to me, but I guess stating his dominance helped him to feel better. The media part of the culinary industry, which is where my career is, is a mostly female space. My experience with fellow female chefs and food stylists has always been pleasant.
What advice or encouraging words can you offer the women of South Africa this Women’s Month?
My advice is always to follow your passion and set personal goals for yourself. There is no greater feeling than doing what you love every single day, to wake up happy to exist in this world and contribute to it in the best way that you know how. I encourage women to set goals and work towards them so that they can see their progress.
Photos of Zola Nene photographed by Lisa Skinner