A Collection Of Restaurant, Food, Drink And Hospitality News From All Over South Africa

S.Pellegrino inspires Global Connection through Culinary Competition

19 April 2023

Indigenous ingredients, young chefs telling exciting stories and a rock-star all-female jury were just a few of the highlights from the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Africa, Middle East and South Asia Regional Finals 2023. South African chefs Siba Mtongana, juror, and Zanté Neethling, award-winner, share their experiences of the competition.

Connecting young chefs from across a very diverse region is an important part of the dynamic of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy. The Africa, Middle East and South Asia Regional Finals 2023 brought together young chefs, who might never otherwise encounter each other, from South Africa, India, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, and Dubai, as well as chefs hailing from Indonesia, France and Peru who are currently working in the region.

This opportunity to meet, mingle, share and compete is especially important for our South African young chefs. While South Africa is very definitely part of the global culinary scene for international visitors, who flock here for our shining culinary reputation, beautiful landscapes and fine wines, it’s isolated by distance from other gastronomic centres, making it hard for young chefs to travel.

“This competition plays a pivotal role - it ensures that young chefs have an outlet to compete in, and be discovered beyond their regions. They are placed at the forefront of the world stage,” says juror, chef Siba Mtongana, of SIBA The Restaurant at The Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town, best-selling author, and star of Siba’s Table on Food Network. “Chefs generally spend the majority of their time in the kitchen on the hard grind. Such competitions give them time to showcase their skill and to harness it by learning from others too. Even if they don’t all win, they receive invaluable experience that they take with them and apply going forward. They become part of a global community that is highly beneficial as they grow in the industry.”

As well as broadening their horizons, this competition encourages young chefs to delve deep into their personal beliefs and to identify and focus on what is special and unique about their own culinary heritage. South African chef, Zanté Neethling, head chef of Nest Food Bar in Knysna, won the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility for her dish Strandveld Ecosystem. This dish celebrates the culinary and medicinal qualities of the indigenous ingredients found along South Africa’s coastline such as wild rosemary, confetti bos, dune spinach, spekboom, buchu, cape cob, smoked mussels and sorghum.

“Winning the S.Pellegrino award for social responsibility gives me the opportunity to be a voice for South African indigenous plants and create awareness in embracing true South African culture and cuisine,” says Zanté. “Many of the diseases and difficulties we are facing today are caused by diet. We need to embrace our edible indigenous plants.” She hopes to be part of stimulating an evolution in our food culture, the establishment of sustainable indigenous food farms to preserve and promote these valuable plants, and to heal through eating from our land.

A championship of and fascination with indigenous foods was also beautifully demonstrated by S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Award Regional Final winner Mythrayie Iyer. Head chef of Farmlore Restaurant in Bengaluru, India her dish Barter – Evolution of Indian Cooking Through the Age of Exploration showcased the transition of Indian cuisines begun by the introduction of international trade in the days of Vasco da Gama. One element of her dish used pre-trade indigenous ingredients such as the ridge gourd, millet and aubergine, the second part only new world imports (now staples) such as tomato, chilli and lobster. “The concept wasn’t just for this competition, it’s always been a part of what we do, who I am. I love to celebrate what we have, these ingredients,” she says.

Along with the winners of the two other awards for the region - Kareem Atef (Egypt) Fine Dining Lovers Food for Thought Award, and Aurélian Durand (Dubai) Acqua Panna Award for Connection in Gastronomy,  these young chefs will go on to compete in their categories at the global finals in Milan in October 2023.

“Being able to share my story with more people has been incredible,” says Zanté. “I am now competing for the global social responsibility award which means that I will be able to represent South Africa on a global platform. Meeting culinary legends and fellow contestants has already broadened my network extensively and I’m looking forward to the next step.”

And making connections isn’t just for young chefs. Of her fellow jurors (Selassie Atadika, UN humanitarian and chef-owner of Miduno nomadic dining enterprise in Accra, Ghana; and chef Tala Bashmi of Fusions by Tala at the Gulf Hotel in Bahrain and winner of Best Female Chef Middle East and North Africa 2022) Siba says “I truly enjoyed being a juror alongside Tala and Selassie - we worked super well together and we have now become friends. It was even more special to be part of an all-female jury - it speaks to the recognition of talent across the board, signalling and embracing a new chapter within the fine dining and culinary cheffing world.”