By Lutho Pasiya
If cooking was a game of chess, then chef Mpho Phalane is the grand mistress of the sixty-four squares. This is the story of a self-taught passionate cook who chased her dreams and made the right moves to stamp her authority on the culinary world.
The life journey of Phalane, who left advertising six years ago to focus on what she loves doing – cooking – is an inspiration to all, to face challenges head on, with grit and determination.
Her food style is simplistic and inclusive, celebrating the power of food and how it can both bring us together and also pull us apart as the human race. Founder and head chef at Food, I Love You, Phalane recently sat down with her industry peers at the iconic Constitution Hill, in Braamfontein, in Johannesburg, to explore the country’s melting pot of rich flavours and creativity.
As an ambassador and mentor for Vuma’s My Community Cooks initiative, in partnership with the Soweto Wine and Food Festival, she shared her experience in the industry, from trading in her advertising job to pursue her passion for people and food, challenges aspiring chefs should expect to face, and advice to help navigate the high-pressure environment.
Over the six years of running the business, Phalane has been very intentional in zoning in on her food style, that is a reflection of her upbringing and experiences – colourful, abundant, and has family and friends at its centre.
Below Phalane shares some of the tools that have helped her get to where she is.
Start with a plan
She pursued her passion for people and food, after spending countless weekends cooking, and hosting friends and family. Phalane encourages aspiring chefs to take time to learn about the culinary industry and its demands, before diving into the profession.
“To succeed in this industry, people must first grasp the basics and apply them to their businesses. There will be opportunities but, without the fundamentals, young chefs are at a disadvantage,” she says.
Find your “why”
Phalane also mentions how crucial it is for young chefs to figure out the “why” and avoid chasing microwave success.
“In the book – Find Your Why – Simon Sinek discusses defining your purpose and why you are doing what you do. Defining this will help guide your journey,” she says.
She says her “why” has always been people and, despite working in the culinary industry, her purpose is to create memorable moments that connect people through food.
Phalane admits that the culinary industry can be a high-pressure environment, with little room for error. To deal with this, she advises young chefs to learn to think on their feet, adapt to changing situations, and be creative.
“The industry requires people to think outside the box, especially when things don’t always work out as planned. The show must go on, come rain or shine,” she says.
Don’t be a technophobe
She acknowledges that technology has played a significant role in creating and maintaining connections in the culinary industry over the last couple of years. Phalane says chefs could expand their reach, and adapt to changing and challenging environments thanks to it.
“I used to be technophobic, but I’ve come to realise the value of technology and how it’s helped us, as an industry, navigate everything we’ve experienced recently. Without connectivity, the effects of the pandemic would have been so much worse,” said Phalane.
“I recently went to visit my great aunt, in Diepkloof, where her family has run a spaza shop for over 40 years. The community has been without electricity for around two months, and part of the shop burned down earlier this year, but they continue to work and push through those challenges. Seeing that made me realise what resilience is all about,” added Phalane.