South African chef John Moatshe cooks for more than compliments
Queen Elizabeth ll, former preside Nelson Mandela and recently, several thousand delegates and dignitaries attending Africa’s Travel Indaba in Durban. These are just ‘for starters’ when you quiz this Chaîne des Rôtisseurs-awarded chef about highlights threading through his illustrious culinary career.
Story and pictures by Wanda Hennig
A earlier version of this story was published in the Sunday Tribune
Not many chefs in the world can claim to have cooked for both President Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth ll, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_II the Queen of England. But for John Moatshe, executive chef at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Center, this prize pairing is the equivalent of a good after-dinner port.
The main course includes heads of state, top executives and esteemed delegates, given the scores who throng to Durban for conventions and events. A cast of characters representing the United Nations and the Olympic Games, for example. Also leading scientists, Nobel laureates, top-name entertainers and many, many more.
On top of all this, he has kept international delegates and ministers of tourism happy and well fed, year after year, at Africa’s Tourism Indaba, most recently held in May 2017 in Durban. It was there that I reconnected with Chef John. He was strolling the corridors with a young chef he happily told me he had trained from scratch and who is now his number two.
Polokwane-born Chef John was running the erstwhile Leonardo’s Restaurant at Sun City immediately before he moved to Durban as a member of the original team that opened the ICC in 1997. A routine day these days sees him overseeing a full-time team of 30 chefs who work out of a main kitchen connected to 16 satellite kitchens via a series of tunnels that run beneath the halls and conference rooms at the ICC.
We met formally for the first time at the ICCs Baobab Café to talk. Chef John had whipped up a dessert platter for our photo shoot. This got us chatting about tips for visual presentation.
“You have to control your portion size,” he said, pointing to the small elements on the huge plate.
“People eat with their eyes before they taste. Just looking, you decided you’re going to enjoy it.” He learned most of what he knows about the aesthetics of food from working, at different times, at Sun International’s four five-star Sun City hotels.
Then the urbane, congenial 53-year-old took me, dressed in a white coat and with my hair under the regulation net that anyone entering must wear, into the usually out-of-bounds kitchen that earlier in the day had provided teas and lunches for 1,800 conference delegates. He doesn’t blink an eye at the idea of a seated-and-served banquet for 5,000.
Three years ago Moatshe was awarded a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs brass plaque/blazon. The prestigious gastronomic society was founded in Paris in 1248.
Moatshe is internationally acclaimed for his passion for and development of what one call nouvelle African cuisine, given that traditional food is evolving in the way it’s being prepared and the spices and ingredients added, like prawns. The Chaîne’s premiere accolade is presented to a chef who maintains “a superb level of cuisine, hospitality and service in line with the standards of the association.”
Wheels on bread
Moatshe’s culinary career had simple beginnings in what was then the Northern Transvaal. Long before the street food trend and mobile food vans, “My grandmother used to bake bread and I used to sell it for her. I’d sometimes use the wheelbarrow to take it round the village, sometimes a bicycle.”
While still at school he also got a part-time job at the local vegetable market. This included making deliveries to canteens. He started learning about previously unfamiliar vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. He also got to see chefs at work in the kitchens.
Fascinated, he got a job as a kitchen hand. A canteen manager advised him to go to hotel school. At the end of Standard 8 he enrolled at the Ga-Rankuwa Hotel School in Pretoria.
His first job was at Sun City. He started as a griller and “rotated all the kitchens learning about all the cuisines.” He moved to cold kitchen and did pastry. He moved up the ranks making it to chef de partie in 1982.
He left and joined the Protea Hotel group and subsequently worked at a Mike’s Kitchen and a Longhorn to gain that type of fast-food steakhouse experience. Woven in was a long stint at some of South Africa’s top (horse) racecourses — Newmarket, Turffontein and Vaal — to get experience in canteen environments.
He then joined the Bophuthatswana parks board, part of which meant being then-president Lucas Mangope’s personal chef. “I used to travel with him wherever he went.”
The well-traveled chef
“I think I’ve been a most fortunate chef,” Moatshe says, relating the fact that he was the main table chef for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and later, the inauguration of Thabo Mbeki. And he cooked for the Queen during her 2001 state visit.
Which is possibly why, when I ask him what he especially likes to eat (he prefers to cook for himself at his Durban North home than go regularly to restaurants), he says.
“I like my pastas and so I’d say a favorite dish would be linguine, which I make al dente. Then, to put on it, I saute onions and garlic with a little salt and pepper and slices of potato in olive oil. To this I add morogo (pumpkin leaves, sometimes called African spinach) and continue braising along with some nutmeg. At the end, before I serve it, I add basil butter.”
To make the basil butter, he says, mix softened unsalted butter with chopped, raw, fresh basil and seasoned to taste with sea salt, black pepper and a little nutmeg. Store it in the fridge. Add it to anything that takes your fancy.
Moatshe is still way too young to consider retirement, but on the subject, he says, “If you’re living your passion, you don’t want to retire. And I love my job.”
© Wanda Hennig 2017, words and pictures.