Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted welcomes the amazing Chef Zola Nene in this week’s episode, which focuses on the wilds of South Africa. Zola is a celebrity chef in her own right, with an impressive resume that includes her own TV appearances and a pair of cookbooks. Needless to say, she’s more than a match for Chef Ramsay.
At the same time, Zola is a warm and wonderful guide as Gordon (and the viewers) get to know South Africa through its food. Audiences will fall in love with her immediately, and Nerdophiles had the chance to get to know her a little better in our interview.
Nerdophiles: Where did your passion for food originate? What is it about cooking that speaks to you so much?
Zola Nene: I think my passion for food started really early on. I grew up in a family where food and meals were always the center of big events and celebrations. My Gran and mom were always great cooks, creating magic in the kitchen, and I think that’s when the “food bug” bit me. I was always peeking in and out of the kitchen to see what they were up to until eventually, they started letting me help out.
I remember the first time that my gran let me help her grind mealies [corn] to make Isinkwa sommbila [steamed corn bread]. It’s my earliest memory of me helping out in the kitchen.
NP: What excites you when you step into the kitchen? What is it about South African cuisine that inspires you?
ZN: The most exciting thing is definitely the diversity in flavours to draw inspiration from when it comes to South African cuisine as a whole. Because we have such an eclectic mix of cultures, we have an amazing mix of tastes too. I love taking traditional dishes and putting a new spin on them by reimagining them with the addition of a spice or a new ingredient. South African food is as bright and vibrant as its people, and I love it!
NP: You’re a well-established chef yourself, so what was it like for you to team up with Gordon Ramsay?
ZN: It was an amazing opportunity to meet and work with Gordon. His willingness to learn and immerse himself into a culture unknown to him was incredible to see and be a part of. He is such a professional and amazing at what he does. I definitely took lots of notes from watching him cook, taste, and present when we were filming.
NP: Having been on TV before, was it easy for you to film Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted? How did this experience compare to your past TV appearances?
ZN: I was in awe at seeing the level of detail and research that went into producing the South Africa episode. The production team was so thorough in ensuring that everything was authentic and real, which I truly admired and appreciated. This was definitely the largest production team I’ve ever worked with before.
NP: What are you hoping to pass on to Uncharted viewers about South African cuisine and culture?
ZN: I’d love people to see how beautiful KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] and South Africa as a whole is, and I think the visuals from the show definitely show that. I also would love for people to get a taste of our great cultural history and our respect for tradition. Yes, we may be a modern country, but we still value our cultures and traditions through our food.
NP: You released your second cookbook Simply Zola in 2018. What actually goes into the making of a cookbook for you? Because it’s more than just collating many recipes.
ZN: I always describe my cookbooks as “forever projects” because for long after I’m gone, they will still be around, so I always put so much into getting them just right. I make sure that my cookbooks tell a story so that someone cooking from them can in some way connect with the emotion I felt when creating that particular recipe. Each recipe in my book always has a story behind it, and in the process of writing my books, testing the recipes, and styling the images, I get to relive those memories in a way that is always so special.
NP: Who were some of the other chefs who inspired, influenced, or otherwise were important in your culinary career?
ZN: When I set off on my chef career, the first chef who actually gave me a chance, with absolutely no experience, was Dave Mooney (Belle Epoque – Knutsford). He gave me a place in his kitchen to learn. He gave me my first ever professional kitchen job in the UK and I will forever be grateful for that opportunity. Chris Erasmus (Foliage – Franchhoek) and Margot Janse (Le Quartier Francais – Franchhoek) are two local chefs who mentored me and taught me so much in my early days as a young apprentice chef and continue to teach.
NP: You in turn got to teach Gordon Ramsay in this episode of Uncharted. What was it like to pass your knowledge on to him?
ZN: The entire Uncharted experience was truly amazing. I’m so honoured to have been chosen to be part of the series. Thank you for sharing a piece of KZN with the world, I hope it inspires people to come and visit our beautiful country. Gordon was a great student; he definitely passed with flying colours. The Chief was very pleased with the meal, so his mission was definitely accomplished.
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted airs Sundays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic.