Chef democratises food by going back to basics

Lesego Semenya strips his recipes of artisanal phrases and snobbery to bring food back to the people.

“Food is part of who we are. It’s how we create memories. When there’s a gathering, when there’s family visiting, there’s always some sort of food somewhere,” says chef Lesego Semenya, who has authored a new cookbook on Mzansi cuisine titled Dijo: My Food, My Journey.

The celebrated pot-and-pan man says it’s important for him to share recipes with the people he interacts with online, to strip the art of cooking — artisanal cooking in particular — of its sheen.

“I try to show them [on my website and on my blog] that certain things aren’t snobbish,” he says.

He advocates the sharing of knowledge. “I try to do that in my book [by] taking out the terms that people create, and showing [readers] that it’s what we have anyway,” he says.

Les Da Chef, as Semenya is known to his almost 45 000 followers on Twitter and 11 000 on Instagram, also shares how food is “an amalgamation of different cultures”. He cites as an example how Cape Malay slaves brought to the colony came bearing some of the ingredients used in widely available Mzansi cuisine such as sosaties and bobotie.

30 January 2019: Lesego Semenya wrote ‘Dijo’, a book about African cuisine that aims to “take the snobbery out of food”.

Past lives of a chef

Semenya worked in engineering after graduating with a B Com degree from the University of the Witwatersrand. He led a different life then, with his food-related experiences including fine dining at high-end restaurants, something he talks about with a hint of trepidation nowadays.

“You don’t create memories in a restaurant,” he says. “You’re not [necessarily] gonna remember the food, you’re not gonna remember the atmosphere.”

He took the experiences from this former life into account when deciding what to do after chef school. He’d worked for six years before giving it all up, spending a year travelling the world before ultimately enrolling in chef school, which would give him a new lens through which to view and appreciate his meals.

He loves the responses he gets to his food online, such as how someone on Instagram will point out the different way they prepared pap when growing up.

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“[I’ll post] a dish that [people] know and they’ll get excited, like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you could do it that way’. It’s getting people more creative as well. When people are creative about food, they talk about it more. In so doing, it builds the industry.”

Semenya isn’t into secrecy and mysticism around food preparation. He wants to democratise how we mix and match ingredients, and advocates striving to achieve that without taking away the essence of dishes that are traditionally associated with distinct groups of people.

Nigerian writer Yemisi Abisala, whose book Longthroat Memoirs was first published in 2016, isn’t convinced about the level of demystification one achieves on social media, especially as it pertains to African cuisine. She sees online platforms as Wikipedias of sorts, “the preface [to] the matter”.

“You have to think of the size of this continent called Africa, that even the good maps misrepresent in size. But the potential is truly, undoubtedly exciting,” she says in an interview.

30 January 2019: Before becoming a cooking sensation, Semenya worked in engineering after graduating with a B Com degree from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Kasi luv, xo

Semenya concedes that he uses jargon specific to his profession in some sections of his book, considering he is, after all, a qualified chef.

But there’s a twist in the overall approach.

“What I’ve tried to show is the nostalgia, the warmth of being a South African, and the food that we have and how we can play around with it,”  Semenya says.

“I wrote a book that I would want to buy. I wrote a book that speaks to me,” he says, adding that he has no grand expectations for the book.

He loves the township, loves celebrating being African and has employed the arsenal he has been storing in his brain since he was a laaitie playing diski in his hood to — as his tagline puts it — take the snobbery out of food.

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