By Noluthando Ngcakani
For a young chef with big dreams and equally large ambition food is the truest form of human connection.
Chef Karabo Benevolent Leeuw (25), passionately known as “Chef Benev” on the Gauteng culinary scene, has already managed to pave his way through the industry by cooking for a multitude of celebrities and influencers in Gauteng.
The North West born chef believes that food is central to human occasion and has the innate ability to bring people together.
“It is a natural thing for us as a people to find joy in food, growing it, cooking it and eating. Food is meant to nourish and give pleasure, it is pleasing to both the senses and the soul.”
Today the young chef on the rise runs a private chef company he proudly calls Eatourial. It offers a fusion of African and Western influenced food styles and aims to foster a food culture amongst patrons in and around the province.
A passion fostered by Nkgono
Growing up in the North West township of Itsoseng, he had already developed an early love for food. He was raised by his grandmother Nkgono Peggy (80) who had a fondness for cooking traditionally African staples like dumplings and stew.
“She has taught me never to rush anything in life or get ahead of myself. Even though she had financial backing to take me in and spoil me she would teach me to earn everything that I had.”
Being a spiritual person and a frequent churchgoer, she would often encourage him to attend church with her every Sunday or face the consequences – cooking an entire Sunday lunch by himself.
“She thought it was punishment for my defying her instruction, but it ended up developing into a love and an inspiration for bigger things to come,” he recalls.
While attending boarding school at Motswedi Secondary School in Zeerust his passions would be further cultivated when he did home economics as a subject. On a school field trip to the International Hotel School in Mahikeng he knew he had to follow a career in the kitchen.
He attended the Capsicum Culinary Studio in Pretoria where a well of wonder and connections was opened through his lecturer, chef Kabelo Kalebe.
Within two months of his culinary studies he got the opportunity to work with Masterchef Australia judges George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan at the Appetite Fest.
Kalebe also introduced him to his mentor, culinary poet and food curator Tebello Motsoane.
‘THERE ARE CHEFS TWICE MY AGE WHO ARE MISERABLE BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT ALLOWED TO INNOVATE OR CREATE IN THE PROFESSIONAL KITCHEN.’
While Leeuw may only have graduated from the Capsicum Culinary Studio in Midrand last year, he has already cooked for several famous guests, including Maps Maponyane, rappers Cassper Nyovest, Solo and Dineo Langa and even DJ Euphonik, among others.
“I wouldn’t be aware that I was cooking for all these people until after the service,” he says.
His experience in just under a year includes working with Motsoane to develop a menu and recipes for his pop-up restaurant Café Tibbz and a collaboration with chef Nti Ramaboa. He did an internship at Epicure in Morningside with chef Coco Reinarhz and worked in Michelin star restaurant DW11 13 with Marthinus Ferreira.
The professional kitchen is hell
His journey through the professional kitchen would not last long, however. He found aspects of it very unappealing, most of all the verbal abuse and sometimes having to duck a dish flung at your head by frustrated senior chefs.
‘DON’T FORGET TO ALWAYS INCLUDE A PIECE OF YOURSELF IN WHATEVER YOU DO.’
He admits that this is done to build character. “It instils discipline and makes you a better chef in a weird way. Inevitably once you are done in that kitchen you fully comprehend the dynamics of running a professional kitchen and in turn can even run one on your own.”
He would branch out on his own, running Eatourial as a private chef. “I realize I need to learn and master the craft, but at the same time I need to invest in myself.
“There are chefs twice my age who are miserable because they are not allowed to innovate or create in the professional kitchen until a senior position is availed.”
A major concern, he says, is learning for years at culinary school and never thinking to trickle skills back into the community. “Have you noticed bo mme ba ko kasi (vendors) can open a kitchen that ba rekisa (they sell) magwinya or shisanyama or something on the corner without experience?” he questions.
“Instead of giving back what we are taught to our community you go to a kitchen where you are shouted at and verbally abused every day,” he adds, concerned.
“I am an advocate of ownership driving the black narrative into sustainability and preservation.”
He advises young chefs to bare their souls on a plate. “You are not in this world to please people. Don’t forget to always include a piece of yourself in whatever you do.”