When trainee chef Mthobeli Ndaleni first arrived in Plettenberg Bay, it’s fair to say delectable pastries were not on the menu.
Nor, for that matter, “homemade” ice-cream.
The year was 2016 and while Ndaleni, a former kitchen porter from Nelson Mandela Bay’s KwaZakhele township, is undoubtedly talented, baking was not in his repertoire.
That all changed when he walked through the doors of the Christina Martin Culinary Art Studio in Harkerville.
It opened up a world of pastries, breads and cakes, and he instantly saw the value of choice ingredients presented in small portions with a pinch of flair and sprinkle of innovation.
What he would not have known was where the month at Plett’s gastronomic finishing school would lead him.
After returning to his kitchen at the Radisson Blu hotel in Gqeberha, he compiled an online CV which attracted the attention of The Club in Admirals Cove in the US state of Florida.
He had to pinch himself as his American dream quickly became reality.
It was also somewhat fitting that the man nicknamed “Sunshine” for his humble nature and winning smile, landed a job (perhaps written in his stars?) in the Sunshine State.
At The Club, and later the Chicago Lake Golf Club, Ndaleni found himself working alongside celebrity chef Francisco and cooking for America’s basketball and golfing royalty.
His journey was cut short when Covid-19 broke out. Once back home, he returned to his culinary roots at the Radisson.
Last month, the 33-year-old father of two won the Best Chef category at NMB’s fifth annual Hospitality Awards & Gala.
But he will never forget his time in Plett and its neighbouring towns, an opportunity that was realised with the help of fellow staff.
“The way they (Plett chefs) prepared seafood was exciting, but the most amazing thing was how they made bread,” he said.
“I didn’t know anything about baking until I went to the Studio. It felt like I was in a science class.”
His apprenticeship in town also introduced him to the subtle art of making ice-cream – at Plett’s legendary Ice Palazzo in Main Street, no less.
He loved his time on the Garden Route, he said.
“On weekends we used to go to food markets to sell our pastries. And my lecturer used to take me out to explore different restaurants and places selling food.”
It had all been part of the plan for what was to come.
Ndaleni believes attitude and hunger are essential ingredients in the cooking game – much like cinnamon and sugar on a Proudly South African pancake.
Many moons ago, it were these traits that allowed him to strike up the courage to tell the Radisson’s executive chef that bussing tables was no longer for him and that he wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Having spent so much time in the States, it was almost inevitable that he would be influenced by its flavours. He has a penchant for American-style barbecue and Mexican food.
However, his signature dish, grilled scallops with vegetable ragout, which patrons can sample at the hotel, defines who he is as a chef.
Notably, he has never forgotten the role his mentors, such as those he met at the Culinary Art Studio, have played in his career.
Now the time had come to pay it forward, he said.
“I have an obligation to continue mentoring the next generation of chefs and to show appreciation for the contributions made by others.
“You should always remain respectful and committed to what you want. Stay disciplined and let food be your art.”
CAPTION: Chef Mthobeli Ndaleni has cooked for sporting royalty in the US but has never forgotten his apprenticeship in Plett. Photo: Matthew du Plessis