While most of us were binge-watching Netflix, comfort-eating and piling on unwanted ‘lockdown kilograms’, chef Sam was losing weight, getting healthy and creating what would eventually become the menu for her very own La Lucia-based, calorie-conscious frozen food business.
Like most small start-up business success stories these days, Sam’s started in lockdown. In fact, it all began during her mandatory 14 days of self-isolation after returning to South Africa from working as a chef at sea on cruise liners.
Fast-forward less than two years later, and Sam (who is now also 18kg lighter) is the owner of a very successful online frozen food business called The Frozen Bistro. She offers delicious, calorie-conscious convenience meals to people who are either too busy or just prefer not to cook.
A born-and-bred Durban girl, 36-year-old Sam grew up surrounded by family in the hospitality industry. Her parents have owned the Beside Still Waters Boutique Hotel for 15 years, which now also houses an open-to-the-public restaurant called Neighbourhood Café, and her brother owns the popular coffee shop, Gatvol Coffee, situated on the same property.
After studying at the Christina Martin School of Food & Wine and then spending a couple of years working both in and out of the food industry, Sam set off to work on ships where she spent the next six years of her life.
“It was an incredible experience. I gained so much knowledge during my time at sea and learned loads about fine dining and vegetarian food. I would probably still be there if I hadn’t been forced to come home,” she says.
But, when the pandemic did force Sam to return to South Africa (and isolate for 14 days), she was also forced to take a long, hard look at her health. “I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to lose some of the weight I had picked up owing to the very unhealthy lifestyle I was living on the ship.”
Sam moved into a small apartment on her parents’ property and, armed with just a small convection oven, started eating loads of healthy vegetables, experimenting with simple recipes … and doing some online exercise classes!
“I’ve always had issues with my weight fluctuating up and down and I had put on a lot of weight I lost five kilograms in the first month and realised that it wasn’t really all that hard. I began hearing people talk about how much weight they were gaining during lockdown and realised that perhaps I could help them by creating some calorie-conscious meals.”
Sam started putting together a small menu of about six meals and cooked for a few friends who were struggling to find the time to cook and eat healthily themselves. Then more people began enquiring about her meals and she realised there was a potential to build her business.
“We now have a 24-meal menu and, although it is very calorie-conscious, it is by no means diet food. I’ve basically just tweaked simple dishes that people like and are familiar with, and done them a little differently so they have fewer calories.”
As a chef, Sam says she could never serve tasteless, ‘diet’ food, but rather cooks food that she enjoys. “It’s restaurant-quality food that you can grab out of your freezer at a fraction of the price, with way fewer calories,” she says. While she does change the menu slightly seasonally, Sam generally keeps it quite consistent, sticking to the favourites that always do well.
So, what’s on the menu?
“It’s really just pure, no-nonsense, good quality food.” Some of the dishes on her order form include: Extra Lean Beef Lasagne, Greek Lamb Stew, Chicken Pot(ato) Pie, Lean Moussaka, Tuscan-Style Chicken Pasta Bake, Broccoli & Artichoke Casserole, French Onion Soup and Prawn Bisque … to name just a few.
When it comes to knowing what to order from The Frozen Bistro, Sam says it all depends on your lifestyle and your needs. “I have a client from Ballito who orders an entire month’s worth of food for herself and her kids, and others who just order a few meals a week to fill in on their busier days.”
Sam has also tried to keep her prices affordable and in line with other frozen foods on the market rather than other ‘health foods’, which are usually much more expensive. She says she is happy with the progress her little business has made so far, and incredibly grateful to her family for helping her get started.
Sam enjoys getting to know her clients and is always available to chat on WhatsApp about ingredients, calories and BMR calculations. She has a lovely monthly blog post on her website, which is definitely worth checking out as well.
Sam recently also took over the role of head chef at the Neighbourhood Café, which opened to the public at the end of last year. “I helped out with the menu planning and overseeing the restaurant initially, but now I’m here full time and loving it.”
The restaurant serves café-style breakfast and lunch from 7.30am to 3.30pm. They also do wine tasting and fine dining evenings a few times a month and will soon be opening a wine bar.