Avani`s secret ingredient

In 2018 Chef Melisa Ngoni became a chef trainer. Two years later, she was awarded Best Mentor at the Young Chef Olympiad in India. That was in February 2020. In an interview with Staff Writer HARRIET NKONJERA, Chef Ngoni, who currently works at Avani Hotel, discusses her passion.

Avani`s secret ingredient

Q: Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your career path?

A: I grew up in Francistown, where I lived with my late uncle Moses Ngoni. He loved cooking. He was the self-made family chef and always wanted me by his side. His favorite meal of the day was breakfast. I remember him teaching me various egg recipes of which I grew to perfect.

After my Cambridge exams, I volunteered to work at Cresta Thapama hotel without pay. I worked in all the departments.  The kitchen department was coincidentally last on the list and it turned out to be my favorite of the departments. I met my then mentor, Dominic Mazararu, who until today has seen me through all my years in the industry. I admired his work ethic in the kitchen, and have since applied the same to my kitchen management style.

Q: As a chef, how would you describe your relationship with food?

A: I have an extremely personal relationship with food, what I eat needs to be healthy but it must also be safe to eat. It is very difficult for me to trust anybody with the types of flavors I want in my food, but there are some, especially those I have trained that I trust. Eating as a chef is quite an experience, every time I eat, I feel like I am in a food tasting exam.

Q: You are involved in mentorship upcoming chefs, tell us about that?

A: I am very passionate about my career and want to be part of the growth of our industry. As a result, I take pride in helping others develop. Working with young chefs inspires me. I equip them with skills to bring fresh ideas into the kitchen.

Having worked in many kitchens in Botswana, as well as internationally as an apprentice, I met different types of chefs. I am able to quickly assess various personality characteristics as a result. I am fascinated by ``bad characters`` because in most instances, having a bad attitude towards anything takes away your ability to fully understand it and apply yourself when the need arises. What I have grasped is that in some cases, it is not always an attitude issue. Career frustrations coupled with the pressure that come with long hours will if unattended, lead to a displeased individual.

I have always struggled to go for the next big opportunity in my career; my natural instinct is to play it safe. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who believe in me and my abilities.

I never thought that I would be running two kitchens simultaneously someday, let alone teaching young chefs and in the process becoming a mentor to many.

Q: Winter is upon us, what are your go-to quick meals during this season?

A: I really enjoy soup. So, I would suggest Cream of butternut soup; potato and leek soup; as well as the classic minestrone soup. For more filling dishes I look to the Classic shepherd pie; Beef stroganoff; chicken and ham lasagna; and spicy lentil stew.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

A: Diners stopped going to hotel restaurants, so there was no one to cook for and show off our skill.

 Chefs are also losing their jobs, especially young chefs who I mentor. Further, because of social distancing, I am unable to regularly meet with them for the mentorship programmes.

Through food we’re able to have conversations about what's going on in our country and how we can be a part of the solution. Food unites people. It is the center of every celebration and it is special.  

Q: As a chef, does your family enjoy only gourmet meals?

A: This is a very difficult question. But the reality is, my job takes away the liberty to cook for my family because this profession requires one to work long hours. But whenever I get the chance, I do cook gourmet meals for my loved ones.

Q: Are there ground rules to healthy eating?

A: First, one needs to have a goal or a reason as to why they want to eat healthy. Once you know why you are doing it, it becomes easier to commit. And yes there are ground rules to follow, a few of them being, building healthy eating habits, drinking fat-free or low-fat milk and eating low-fat dairy products.

Q: During this COVID-19 pandemic, what immune boosting foods would you recommend?

A: Always make sure the food you eat is at ideal serving temperatures, hot food should be served at temperatures above 63 degrees to prevent bacteria growth. Food that is high in vitamin C such as kale, grapefruits, citrus fruits, broccoli, red pepper, fresh garlic and ginger, should be consumed regularly because they contain medicinal properties. Remember; only add garlic to your pot half way through cooking, that way the garlic maintains its health components.

Q: You were awarded Best Mentor at the Young Chef Olympiad in India in 2020. How do you feel about that?

A: This was without a doubt, the most defining moment of my career and I am forever thankful to the Gaborone College Of Culinary Arts for choosing me to represent them in their international affairs. Everyone needs a mentor, I have one too. My mentor helped me assess my strengths and weaknesses, as well as develop skills for success and a long-range career plan. I was given a fresh perspective, a new way of looking at a problems or issues.   

I have always been passionate about developing young chefs in our country and I already have a pool of young chefs who I engage with, as well as others who hold positions of Head chefs, Sous chefs, Private Chefs etc.  My interest is in training young chefs in the disciplinary code, because had it not for the discipline instilled in me, I would have definitely not made it this far.