Walking up to the South Africa Garden at the popular Taste of Sydney festival, I first hear the rumbling of drums before the wafts of barbecue fill the air. Inside the tent, I spy MasterChef South Africa judge and celebrity chef Benny Masekwameng a.k.a Chef Benny getting ready to host a masterclass with a small but hungry crowd.
Within half an hour, he manages to put together a mouth-watering meal of perfectly cooked lamb chops served with deep-fried polenta, a colourful vegetable medley and wilted spinach – made with his secret ingredient, peanut butter! As Chef Benny twirls his pans and sautés his vegetables, he casually chats to the audience about the sumptuous flavours of South African dishes. He then plates his homemade masterpiece and everyone flocks to the bench to dig in.
As the crowd dwindles away, I get the rare opportunity to chat to Chef Benny about his unusual life spent in and out of the kitchen.
Why did you become a chef?
It wasn’t plan A. I wanted to do electrical engineering, but the cost of university was too high. After high school, I worked with my mum for two years, trying to raise enough money to go study electrical engineering but it still didn’t come together.
So I figured, the clock is ticking, I need to go for plan B. So I asked myself, what is it that I love doing? And what is it that I think I’ll be good at? And I looked at what I had been doing since I was eight with my mum, cooking and spending time with her in the kitchen. When I looked at that and how happy I was and how good I could become, I thought maybe I could do this professionally. So I did it and I’ve never looked back since.
Did you ever dream it would end up with you being on TV?
Never! That was never the idea because back then, there wasn’t a lot of cooking shows on TV. We didn’t have satellite TV in South Africa so we were not exposed to a whole lot of things that a chef could do as a profession. After finishing varsity, a whole load of cooking shows started coming on and we could see what happens in the rest of the world. That’s when it started to become popular. So in terms of dreaming of what I could become, it was limited to me running a kitchen.
How did you get involved with MasterChef South Africa?
There was a countrywide search for people who could potentially be judges on the show, and they interviewed 271 professional chefs in South Africa. I didn’t think I was in that calibre as many people had been in the industry for 20 or 25 years and I was just coming up. I had just made executive chef three or four years before that. But somehow I made the cut. I don’t know what they saw in me. I had never worked in television before. I had never been in a place where there are four or five cameras all focused on me and I have to say certain things or do this and that. But somebody saw something in me that would work for TV.
Did you enjoy it?
Yeah, I loved it! It changed my life in a lot of ways. It opened up a whole lot of other possibilities too, which have been really really good. I love travelling and now I get to travel a lot.
How would you describe the cuisine in South Africa?
It’s vibrant, colourful, full of flavour and it represents everybody that’s in South Africa. It represents the diversity we have in our country, in terms of the influences. For Australians, it’s a good time to go to South Africa because the exchange rate is so good for you guys.
Where would you recommend first-timers go in South Africa?
Obviously, the major cities, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, but also the smaller cities and the countryside where you can go on safaris. We have so much to offer in all our nine provinces. We’ve got our semi-desert areas, which have unique animals, produce, lifestyle and people. Then we’ve got the lush green tropical weather on the eastern side of our coastline and then we’ve got the wine region down in the Cape, which has an abundance of fruits and berries. A whole lot to offer!
What city would you call South Africa’s culinary capital?
Cape Town. There is a lot of innovation that is going on there that filters up to Johannesburg. Johannesburg has the most restaurants and diversity, but in terms of innovation and new trends and funky things to do, they all start in Cape Town. I know people in Jo’burg will kill me for this- I’m from Jo’burg myself,-but I regard Cape Town as our food capital.
Where can people eat your food?
The joys of working for a big hotel group, Tsogo Sun, puts me everywhere around the country, not in one particular place. But I get to cook with a lot of chefs and do a lot of promotion for our company. We have over 94 hotels throughout Africa and the Middle East. I could be cooking at any one of those venues, depending on where I am needed.
Have you thought about doing a cookbook?
It is in the works. I’m also working on my own cooking show.
Who cooks at home?
My wife! She is also a professional chef and a really good cook.
How can we keep in touch?
Follow me on Instagram and Twitter @chef_bennym