A Love Affair with French Cuisine

Sowetan-born chef, Wandile Mabaso, has taken the culinary industry by storm. Not only is he one of South Africa’s hottest culinary exports, Chef Mabaso has taken his passion for cooking across the globe, training under some of the most successful chefs in the world. With a desire to produce dishes worthy of being on display in a museum, Mabaso is driven by the aim of extreme perfection and a fine attention to detail.

Specialising in contemporary haute French cuisine, Mabaso’s love for food appeared to have been cemented into him at a young age. After beginning his culinary education in South Africa, he then travelled to New York City where he trained in classical French cuisine. His infatuation with French food began in his formative years of culinary school. “We always read books about great French chefs and the food looked inspiring.” Alluding to his desire of wanting to be amongst the best, Mabaso knew that relocating was the route he needed to take in order to get there. “When I got to the United States, the Michelin guide had just come out and all the big French chefs were causing a stir. That also influenced my decision.” Living in a hostel, Mabaso spent his early days in New York wondering from door to door seeking work. After eventually landing a job at the upmarket French bistro Gascogne, where he worked for a year, he then moved to a Brooklyn-based eatery specialising in French-Korean cuisine, before training at Michelin-starred restaurants such as La Bernadin and Daniel. “It was tough,” he explains. “But I began to see what was possible -and what I was capable of.”

What needs to be said, is that Wandile Mabaso has earned his stripes in the food industry. He has travelled far and wide in order to learn as much as possible about French cuisine and it is these journey’s that have shaped both himself and his palette. However, he does not look back on his culinary career without remarking on things he would do differently. “I would advise other young chefs, once they are well trained, to work towards being owners of their own establishments. The culinary world is difficult and labour-intensive. Rather put in the sweat and long hours to invest in your own business.”Nonetheless, Mabaso worked his way to the top, encountering more than a few disastrous experiences on the way. “I remember in Paris I put bread inside the oven and forgot to set the timer. I forgot and therefore I burnt 80 portions of bread which was for the whole service. Everyone in the kitchen looked at me as if I had killed someone. As damage control I had to look into our large freezer and find pre-cooked bread, luckily I found about 50 portions.” Mabaso is also not apprehensive to discuss the downside of the culinary industry. “This job can be very rewarding. However, the downside is that sometimes people don’t appreciate or understand the work put in,” he explains. “The obsession with cooking and creativity can cause an imbalance in your personality and relationships.”

He has cooked across Europe, the USA and South Africa. During his time abroad, Mabaso worked alongside some of the most highly-respected French chefs in the world, including Alain Ducasse at his two Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Meurice, in Paris. “His philosophy is about being in touch with yourself, your roots and having a unique expression when it comes to producing food,” notes Mabaso when looking back at his time spent with Ducasse. Along the way Mabaso crossed paths with the man he now dubs his mentor, French chef and baker Olivier Reginensi.“[He] taught me how to cook by simply understanding every ingredient and it’s chemical composition. That way you know how to treat every component in a different way according to the flavour and texture you want to achieve,” Mabaso explains. “This has allowed me to be able to make anything taste good, simply by understanding how to elevate it.”

After spending ten years abroad, Mabaso returned home in 2017 with one goal -to disrupt the South African culinary scene and establish his own restaurant -and he did just that. Noticing a widespread misconception in the art of haute French cuisine, he decided to jump in with both feet. “French cuisine has typically been served as petite portions in expensive restaurants and therefore people think it’s only for the wealthy and elite. Society needs to understand that over the decades the cuisine has evolved to an experiential concept which brings an element of entertainment -it’s about more than just filling your stomach.” A first of its kind, The SA Culinary Club in Bryanston, Johannesburg is an exploratory form of dining which aims to take guests on a thrilling gastronomic journey. On a constant quest to push creativity and grow as a chef, Mabaso regards complacency as detrimental. “Now my biggest challenge is running a business and keeping that creativity alive. Sometimes my creativity shuts down,” he explains. “However, it does come back, albeit at the most unusual times, such as three in the morning. Keeping a business mind and a creative mind at the same time is challenging.” On this note, Mabaso refers back to what he learned when cooking alongside Alain Ducasse. “He has built a great brand and has become a giant in the culinary world. But most importantly, he has a business mind.”

Having recently collaborated with Australian clothing brand Country Road, Mabaso has a lot to say when it comes to brand collaborations and the way in which they influence the food industry as a whole. “Collaborations for chefs are becoming more common, especially if the brands share the same philosophy,” he explains. “My collaboration with Country Road is special to me as we share the same values with regards to providing quality and consistency, placing a huge focus on customer satisfaction.” Mabaso adds that in his opinion, it is the brand’s high quality, upmarket approach and attention to detail that resulted in the success of the partnership.

Wandile Mabaso has taken the South African culinary scene by storm, making a few pitstops around the globe along the way. With an undying love for haute French cuisine, he has taken his passion and transformed it into a profession. Coupled with hard work and sacrifice, Mabaso’s journey began as a leap of faith. With his own restaurant now under his belt, Wandile Mabaso continues to evolve and push boundaries. “French food is expressive with an artist flair,” he explains,“and I am an artist at heart.”

Images: Conversation Capital

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