We speak to Khanya Mzongwana on growing food and your life

Khanya Mzongwana is a chef and contributing food editor for Taste Magazine. She is also a garden enthusiast and future director for an alternative food education centre for sustenance and creativity. She is, as we say, goals. We spoke to her about her journey so far. 

Where did your journey start? 

I started cooking professionally when I was in high school. I had a food court restaurant job and I also had a work experience job at a hotel, it was part of the grade 10 curriculum. I worked at the beach hotel for a short time. Then they offered me a weekend job. I really got into working with food. I was always in kitchens from 16 years old. I am moving to Cape Town soon, and the blank canvas will be great to see what else I can do. I will be working with Taste for about six months.

Your garden posts on instagram are really awesome, how did this start? 

My Dad passed away in 2013, so growing food always reminds me of him. My parents used to keep a garden when we were young. It was a normal thing. Later in life my Dad really got into gardening, he was always growing stuff. By then I had a small restaurant here in PE with my mom. We were renting a kitchen and a courtyard in a shebeen here in Central. My Dad supplied our vegetables. He grew such amazing stuff. He was just so good at it. For me this isn’t a lockdown project or a victory garden. I needed to occupy myself with positive things after I came out of hospital. One day I was just looking out at it, and had this flashback about my Dad. He would till the soil. It was important for me to learn from that memory. I think it had to be a lesson that didn’t come from the internet. 

The garden has been like opening a memory vault for me. I even remembered a nickname my Dad used to call me. Meals we used to cook together. I just love seeing this backyard alive. It is what makes me happy. 

Do you save money by growing your own food?

My garden is small. There are like 20 different things growing here including herbs and aromatics. You need patience. You are not going to be saving money within a few months.You won’t have a big enough bunch of spinach to make a pie for instance overnight. Since I am moving, I don’t want to think about it but I don’t want to leave the garden behind truthfully. My mom has tended gardens before and is capable of looking after it. I am so overprotective over it. I feel sad about leaving it. But I have an 80 page handover, and a 36 hour playlist when tilling the soil to give to my mom.

How do we start a food garden? 

Research what is good to grow for that particular season. Don’t feel intimidated. No amount of space is too small. You can grow quick crops like spinach, green beanstalks, herbs in pots. Consider your space. Use four tyres, and plant something different in each tyre. Consider water-friendly crops. Don’t coddle your garden too much. It is more capable of looking after itself than you think. Plants want love and attention. You have to listen to what they are telling you. Feel your soil.  

How do you use social media to showcase the garden?

 I have been on Instagram since 2015. I spent a lot of time concerned about how I am perceived online. I noticed with my food content people tend to respond to meat content and selfies. Posts about the garden doesn’t get that much interaction. But to me it just showed that it doesn’t matter. Curating your instagram for public responses is not the be all and end all. I like posting things that mean something to me.

What future plans do you have? 

My long-term plan is opening up Undignified Studios; a free alternative food education centre. We will help young people to learn how to grow food. I want to create jobs with basic knowledge I feel everyone should have. The space will be a judgement-free zone. We will create new skill sets and opportunities for Black children around food. It isn’t fun for me to be hailed as one of the only Black food stylists. It angers me. I have been searching high and low for a Black food photographer and I can’t  find one. It’s not because Black people aren’t interested in food photography, there just isn’t a lot of information available about it. I can’t refer anyone looking for a Black food photographer

Black people are not part of the mainstream food conversation in South Africa. Youth have the best and freshest perspectives on food and its future. I want to be part of investing in youngsters. Getting them to start magazines, style billboards and start community gardens. I want to see them make money and supply big chain supermarkets. 

Black people grow food more than I have ever seen, everybody has a vegetable patch or fruit trees. We need to dispel the myth that being a cook is not professional enough. We need to instill the importance of food. You can’t do anything if you are hungry. I have been wanting to open Undignified studios since 2017. There will be a dining area, fully equipped kitchen where people can cook. A workspace that is self-sufficient. I want the garden to take up 40 percent of the space. I want the indoors and outdoors to be in sync, I want the students to work and make money. This is not just for me. I have a need  to do this. It is imperative that I do this. 

Khanya’s e-cookbook is available  at R250. Email for your copy at undignifiedco@gmail.com

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