“Being a Private Chef allows me to be fluid so I am able to work on various exciting projects within the culinary sphere.” — Chef Li on LLA Interview

 

Can you tell us about your culinary background and how you became a private chef?

Cooking is my first love, growing up I wasn’t really into dolls and dresses. I was more into books and plants. I started pretending to have a restaurant and making all kinds of spectacular ‘dishes’ for my younger sisters and cousins. It was a lot of fun, however after matric I decided to go to Wits University to study Sociology & Philosophy. Long story short, I dropped out halfway through my second year and applied to go to HTA School of Culinary Arts. My father was very supportive & attended the interview with me. I got into culinary school then everything started falling into place, I finished top 5 in my class. I then secured my first job as a demonstration chef at Pick n Pay on William Nicol after training there. I then got an opportunity to work at the gorgeous Kempinski Hotel in Doha, Qatar. That’s where I got to elevate and really hone my skills as a chef. When I came back, I entered Top Chef South Africa season 1, that’s when my journey in the culinary media space began. Shortly after that I became the Sous Chef at The Orbit Home of Jazz in Braamfontein. Sadly, they had to close their doors and that’s when I decided to try out the Private Chef concept. I got the opportunity to work for a high profile family in Johannesburg. When I left that job, I decided to spread my wings and open my own business, ChefLi Private Chef Services. I worked as a personal chef for many tourists in the Maboneng precinct. When COVID-19 hit, I came back to my family home in Kwa-Zulu Natal. I could not work, but I was also blessed with a son. In December 2021, I revived my Private Chef Service business and have managed to secure clients in Johannesburg & Durban. It hasn’t been easy, but I keep pushing. I currently sit on the SA Chefs KZN committee as co-lead of the Young Chefs Club (YCC) where I get the opportunity to sow seeds of insight into the future chefs of South Africa.

 

What types of cuisines or cooking styles are you most passionate about?


I am very passionate about African & Middle Eastern cuisine. It breaks my heart that African cuisine is so hidden from the rest of the world when we have so much to offer. I’m working on creating dishes that showcase authentic dishes from Madagascar & South Africa as my heritage comes from these 2 countries. I’ve had a few opportunities to serve these dishes in countries like Turkey & Ghana and the response was incredible. It encourages me to keep going. I fell in love with Middle Eastern cuisine when I went to live in Qatar, the colours, the flavour combinations, their flair and technique. It’s a thing of beauty and I’m obsessed! I have a deep love for learning about different cultures & the historical origins of their cooking practices. That’s the academic in me so I will never stop seeking knowledge & understading.

What sets your cooking apart from other private chefs in South Africa?

What sets me apart is my flavour combinations, creativity & execution. My menus don’t look like the regular menus that you might be used to because I create my own recipes & dishes most of the time. Another thing is my oustanding team, my clients love and adore them and that fills my heart with so much joy. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people thoroughly enjoying the meals we’ve prepared for them. I love people and I respect this industry so everything I do comes from my heart & soul.


How do you stay up to date with culinary trends and incorporate them into your work?

I stay up to date with trends by keeping up with all the food and beverage pages on social media. I also love attending expos & festivals to see what’s new. Lastly, I watch every single cooking/drinks show that comes out on every platform, literally. I follow all the chefs that are on those shows so that I can keep up with actual people in the culinary industry. It’s a lot of fun.

 

Can you provide an example of a customized menu you’ve created for a client, and what made it special or unique?

Entrée

Beetroot & Butternut gnocchi with white Rosemary sauce

Starter

Sesame & Kulonji crusted Abalone Tuna with Lasary Legumes

(Malagasy salad dressed with curry based vinaigrette)

Main

Pistachio crumbed rack of Lamb with Parmesan fondant Potato, wild mushroom saute, carrot puree, lemon thyme jus

Dessert

Exotic Pavlova – mini Pavlova, vanilla white chocolate mascarpone cream, mango compote, granadilla coulis, toasted coconut flakes

 

This menu is so special to me because it’s the first menu that I put together that features elements from South Africa & Madagascar. It also features my current signature lamb dish. This is a winning menu, it’s full of flavour yet so well balanced, I could not be more proud.


How do you handle the pressure of cooking for high-profile or demanding clients?

The first point of order is to listen very carefully and take a moment to think before I respond. If I don’t have an answer in that moment, I always just tell them that I will make a plan for them – they love to see that you are willing. Having characteristics such as patience, adaptability & integrity is very important in the hospitality industry because we deal with a wide range of personalities constantly. Another way I manage demanding clients is by making sure that my prep is on point, and I always try to make extra or have a substitution plan because there is no room for error, and anything can go wrong. A lot of the times, high profile clients will say things like no dessert or no dairy but once they have enjoyed their festivities, they start making requests for these things so it’s always good to be well prepared. 

Can you share any strategies you use to maintain organization and efficiency in the kitchen?

Once the menu has been established and confirmed, I do a prep sheet for myself or my team in the form of an excel document highlighting the dish, the elements in the dish & what prep needs to be done for that dish. If I’m working in a team, I colour code the instructions so everybody knows what they are doing in the kitchen. I also put together my inventory list for the event, so all the tools, containers, cutlery & crockery needed for the particular event. I then go and view the venue that I’ll be cooking at so that I can plan out the order of work & where I will be storing the ingredients etc. Its basically paying attention to every detail, this will ensure a successful event. 

 

What are your long-term goals as a private chef, and how do you see your career evolving in the future?

My long-term goals as a Private Chef include doing more community work for young African Chefs. Creating various opportunities, programs and workshops for their improvement. My ultimate dream which goes hand in hand with my evolution is to open a state-of-the-art African Chef School where one can study Culinary Art & Food Science up to PhD level. I think there is so much that we don’t get to learn in our current institutions, and I believe that I have the vision to enable me to develop this kind of school. But I have a long way to go. I want to see African Chefs take the lead in the culinary world, I want them to be courageous enough to love and embrace who they are and use that as the fuel to help them elevate & change the world one dish at a time. If there is anything I want to be remembered for, its my passion for the arts & the young people.  

Lastly, what do you enjoy most about being a private chef, and what motivates you to continue pursuing this career?

I enjoy the freedom of being able to express my creativity in my own unique way. I also enjoy interacting with different types of clients and taking on new briefs. Being a Private Chef allows me to be fluid so I am able to work on various exciting projects within the culinary sphere. Having said all that, it hasn’t been easy, it’s still not easy but what keeps me going is the hope of transformation for the future chefs to come. It’s knowing that every seed I plant today will reap fruit to create a better tomorrow.     

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