From washing dishes in the scullery at a Durban restaurant to heading up his own team and becoming junior sous chef in a five-star hotel in London, Chef Themba is now bringing his talents and more than 20 years’ of culinary experience to North Coast homes as a private chef for intimate dinner parties and cooking classes.
The first thing Thembinkosi Mngoma learned to cook was a chicken curry. He was a young boy and his father was his teacher. “I will never forget how he taught me to cook so that I wouldn’t burn myself,” Themba laughs. “He told me that when the oil was hot, I should chuck the onions in and then run!”
Now a 40-year-old father of two, Chef Themba has come a long way from his humble childhood in Umlazi. He has been on a whirlwind journey for the past 20 years that has taken him around the world and back … and it all started when he landed a job as a dishwasher in the scullery of a restaurant called El Cubano, owned by Martin Lombaard.
“Four weeks after I started I was given a small space of my own and taught how to grill calamari and fry up sides to go with the main courses. I’ll never forget the day I met well-known restaurateur Marco Nico. He walked into the kitchen wearing a chef’s uniform and, for the first time, I realised that you could be a chef and a businessman at the same time. That was the day I started taking my job seriously,” says Themba. He decided then that he would own his own restaurant one day.
After working for Martin for year and half, Themba decided it was time to start pursing his big dream. He applied to the International Hotel School twice, but was rejected both times. “When I told Martin my plan he made a few calls. Before I know it the forms had been faxed and I was going for an interview a week later.” That was the beginning of Themba’s culinary journey.
After three years of hotel school and working in hotels and lodges around the country, Themba set his sights on another big goal – to live and work in London.
“I have always wanted to be the very best chef I could be and I knew the culinary standards were incredibly high in London. That was where I wanted to go to further my learning. I booked a flight and one night in a hostel and I went!”
Three days later, Themba applied for a job as a chef at the five-star Soho Hotel in London. “I had to do a practical interview where I had to cook three things – risotto, the thinnest ribeye steak I’ve ever seen (medium rare!) and a bearnaise sauce. I must’ve done a good job, because I got the job,” he laughs. He was made chef de partie, which meant he had to head up a station and oversee other chefs. He was later promoted to junior sous chef. It was an experience he will never forget. “The first six months were really hard. It was very ‘old-school’ and strict and I had to adapt very quickly. I think this was where I truly learnt about responsibility.”
Although he says he didn’t necessarily want to work in a Michelin Star restaurant, Themba made a commitment to himself to visit and eat in as many of them as he could during his time in the UK. And that’s just want he did. He ate in numerous Michelin Star restaurants in London, Ireland and Scotland, and always booked a table for one!
Three years later Themba returned to South Africa and got a job with his old boss and mentor Martin, as his restaurant called Havana Grill at Suncoast Casino. From there he moved to Granny Mouse where he met Precious, the woman who would later become his wife.
Over the years, Themba has pursued various avenues in the culinary world, including opening his own catering company called King’s Cuisine, where he did mass catering for mostly government events, and helping with the setting up and opening of various restaurants.
He spent some time in Franschhoek where he took up a the position of head chef at the well known Roca at Dieu Donne Vineyards
When it was time to settle down and get married Themba made his way back to Durban, where he worked, seasonally, at Martin’s Little Havana in Umhlanga. His final role, before the dreaded pandemic hit, was as banqueting sous chef at the Elangeni Hotel. Forced to take voluntary retrenchment after lockdown, Themba used the time to focus on what he really wanted to do.
“People want to enjoy restaurant quality food in the comfort of their own home and that’s what I can do for them. If you’re wanting an intimate dinner part for 10 or 20 people, I will buy all the ingredients and come in (with a waiter) and cook for you in your kitchen. I also offer cooking classes, where I can teach you to make a variety of dishes, including your own pasta from scratch, sauces, seafood, red meat and dessert.”
Asked what sets him apart from other chefs, Themba says it’s his eye for detail and the fact that taste always come first. “Presentation is very important to me, but taste always comes first.” He also pays close attention to who he is cooking for. “I made a concsious decision not to limit myself and have a ‘signature style’. I love so many types of food, from Italian and French to Zulu and Asian flavours. I’m generous with my portions and I understand my market. I think it’s really important to remember who you are cooking for.”
Details: Contact Themba on: [email protected], 076 604 1959, IG: @privatechef_sa
Text: Leah Shone