Editor Chad January shares a meal with Zola Nene and her family to celebrate her latest Gourmand Cookbook award, and reflect on the milestones along the way.
For many of us South Africans, Zola Nene is a household name. So much so that it’s difficult to imagine that she almost didn’t grace our screens and bookshelves — she was very nearly a lawyer. It was one phone call home to her family that changed her life path for good: they encouraged her to embrace her passion, celebrate her creativity and step into the kitchen as a professional. They told her to go for it — and she’s taken them along for the ride.
It was 2005 and her law exams were looming, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t completely invested in this career. She chose to confront this feeling and picked up the phone to discuss it with her father, Michael. “My dad told me that the best thing I can do is to find a career that I love,” she shares. He believed that if that was not the case with her law degree, she should stop it immediately and find her real passion.
But what was her passion? The answer was right in front of her: her family congregated around food and cooking was their love language. “My family celebrates every single moment we have together. Celebrating life every day, regardless of the circumstances, is so important to us.”
With zero kitchen experience, she headed to the UK where she started as a chef intern. She worked her way up the kitchen ranks as a commis entremetier (working with veggies), chef de partie (senior chef) and patissier (pastry chef), and all the while her determination to be the best in her field grew and grew.
Two years later, back in South Africa and just 22 years old, Zola had an important decision to make.”I knew then that as a woman of colour working in a male-dominated industry, it would not be enough just to have the experience. I needed to study and get my credentials to back it up,” she explains. She enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch and three years later received her diploma in professional cookery and patisserie.
In her final year, she chose to specialise in food media. Soon after graduating, her internship as a food assistant at Top Billing, a South African home and lifestyle magazine, opened her eyes to a whole new side of the world of food: you didn’t have to be a chef in a restaurant kitchen to work in food. Soon, she joined the Expresso Morning Show food team as a food stylist. “I remember having to tart each day at 3am to do all the prep and cooking for the show. Then, once the show ended, I had to write all the briefs for the guests, and do all of the shopping and pre-production for the next day’s show,” Zola recalls.
But Patience Stevens, the head of Cardova which runs Expresso, wanted Zola to be more than just a behind-the-scenes foodie. “She saw something in me that I had yet to discover.” It took about a month of the production team begging and pleading before Zola agreed to step in front of the camera as their resident chef. “Thinking back, I can’t believe that I had been that stubborn, saying no to an opportunity that changed my life forever,” she chuckles.
She spent six years presenting at Expresso and somehow found the time to write her first cookbook, Simply Delicious, in 2017. Much more than a cookbook, she wove her story through the recipes and paid tribute to those who influenced her palate and cooking style. “I don’t think writing a cookbook is the goal of every chef or foodie, but there is that voice in the back of your mind tempting you to dream and try it,” she explains.
It wasn’t long before this cookbook bagged two Gourmand World Cookbook Awards: one for the TV (English) Celebrity Chef and another for the Best (English) TV Zola reached “billboard status” when she became a judge on Masterchef South Africa alongside seasoned food writer and editor Justine Drake and fine-dining chef Gregory Czarnecki.
After a short break, the show came back with a sleeker, more modern and sophisticated approach. “The production team, Home Brew, were phenomenal. There was so much care taken to look after the well-being of the judges and contestants. It is such a gruelling experience that is mentally and physically challenging,” she shares. She enjoyed every moment of judging, particularly because they all had high standards but differed in their thinking and mentorship styles.
“I think it created the perfect balance on the show,” she says. The judges also held each other accountable when it came to judging. “We had to remain unbiased and judge each plate of food put before us, not the person or our personal feelings regarding a contestant,” she explains. “There was a great amount of respect between the three of us and we’d call each other out when we felt that some judgements were not fair enough,” she laughs. “Being on Masterchef SA was an opportunity and experience of a lifetime that I would happily do again.”
But this well-decorated chef, writer and presenter strongly believes that celebrations should not only happen when we achieve great things. That’s why every Sunday is special to her. “I wake up in the morning, check my fridge and freezer, then decide what Chef Book category. Her reaction? Utter disbelief. “I remember feeling like it was a prank because there was no way that my first book could win such a prestigious award. I called the publisher from Penguin Random House at the time, Beverley Dodd, and expressed those feelings to her. She laughed and told me that it was true and that congratulations were in order,” she recalls.
Just two years later, her second cookbook, Simply Zola, won Best in the World in the TV Category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. And in 2023, she did it a third time: her third cookbook, Simply Seven Colours, scooped up the same award.
But Zola’s screentime wasn’t over. She hosted her own show, Celeb Feasts with Zola, and brought South African celebrity guests and their mentors into her kitchen. “I’ve always believed that cooking with someone and making them comfortable in the kitchen is one of the easiest ways to allow them to open up. It’s like being in a therapist’s chair: before you know it, you’ve shared your most intimate life stories while casually frying chicken or folding chocolate into a batter. I loved every moment of it,” she says.
I’m making for lunch. The family doesn’t even communicate or plan a meeting time: every Sunday without fail, the whole family just rocks up around 12:30pm for lunch with me. It’s one of our unspoken rules,” she laughs. “Then the day consists of enjoying lunch together and playing board games with my niece and nephew”. “My family celebrates every single moment we have together,” she shares. “Celebrating life every day, regardless of the circumstances, is so important to us.”
Words by: Chad January
Photography: Zhann Solomons
Also read: Zola Nene’s milk tart Swiss roll