The Cape Town-based Top Chef SA runner-up and private chef, Ayabonga Gope, is known for his authentic and modern takes on traditional South African dishes, such as his recipe for sun-dried tomato hake paired with seasonal veggies.
Condé Nast House & Garden caught up with him for a quick chat about his culinary background and where he draws inspiration from. Take a look below.
You placed runner-up on TopChef SA, what was the experience like for you?
The TopChef experience was amazing to me. I had never dreamt that I would even make it to the finals, but I did. At the beginning of the show, I felt a little intimidated by other contestants so my goal was to just enjoy the experience but making it to the finals gave me so much confidence as a young chef from Khayelitsha.
I must admit, I have always doubted what I do in the kitchen. After the show, with a new-found confidence, I began to understand that I am enough. I still have a lot to learn and I constantly work towards being better than I was yesterday.
What have you been doing since TopChef SA?
After Top Chef, I went back to the Deck House to complete my contract as Sous Chef. My goal has always been to try everything in the field until I can find something that resonates with me. I have worked at hotels, restaurants and in the catering business.
I left Deck House and after the three months of leave, a company I used to work for offered me a position as second in charge chef for catering events. I spent eight months with the company after which I left to work as an independent private chef.
I have had the opportunity to cook for people in their private homes, hosted my own private dinners, run brand campaigns and a regular stand-in on Afternoon Express.
When did you realise your talent for cooking and decide to make it a career of it?
Honestly, my mother deserves all of the credit. I will forever be grateful to her for allowing me to live what she says is my calling.
At the age of five, I lived with my mother who had a demanding job at the time. This meant that she came home late most days. She taught me to cook rice to try and make things easy for herself when she would get home from work. We always ended up eating the rice with eggs and tomato sauce because she would be tired from the day’s work to make a proper meal. That combo is still my favourite meal today.
Between grade 10 and 11, my mother asked me about my plans after high school. I don’t remember giving her a straight answer to that question. One night, I was making supper at home, she asked if I’d like to try out culinary school for a year and if didn’t like it, I had the freedom to do whatever else I wanted to do. I recall laughing because at the time I had no idea that people actually went to culinary school.
Cooking is my happy place. It’s something I do to make other people happy as well. I remember tagging along with a lady in my area who had a catering company and I truly loved hanging around them. I took my mother’s advice and tried Cheffing out for a year and ever since then I haven’t looked back.
Tell us a bit more about the Chef Aya dinners you host?
These dinners are about celebrating a breakthrough in my new-found confidence in my craft and celebrating that with people who love food, appreciate good wine and great company.
I get to curate spaces where people are able to meet, network and grow. Our country is going through some of the worst times with a high unemployment rate. We can alleviate the problem by creating new and bigger networks among people that will enable an environment of collaboration and sharing of ideas of how to navigate certain spaces and challenges. The private dinners are there to serve as a space to cultivate and enable these relationships. I plan to have 4 annual dinners for this purpose as of 2019, one in each quarter.
What’s your signature trait as a chef?
My signature trait is giving my clients the best quality of everything. This is from how I present myself to the quality of food I serve. Clients are sure to have a unique experience every time I am cooking in any home or hosting a private dinner. I enjoy recreating African cuisines, adding a modern twist to traditional food and some French cuisines.
What have been your career highlights thus far?
It’s been a tough journey but I am happy with everything I have done so far. I used to think that being a head chef would be the ultimate highlight but now, I know the universe has much more in store for me if I continue working hard.
There’s been the Top Chef experience, winning Eat Out’s Best Sea Food Chef, hosting pop up dinners and cooking in client’s private homes.I would say the highlight of it all has been my resilience when the going gets tough. I am honestly grateful for this journey.
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