Since becoming a Top Chef SA finalist in 2016, Chef Ayabonga Gope, also known as The Cook Dude, has gone from strength to strength in his solo journey as a private chef. From learning how to cook rice at the age of 5 in his home in Khayelitsha to a career preparing fine-dining meals for high-profile guests across the country, Chef Aya’s story is one of passion, hard work and determination.
Tell us a bit about yourself and where your journey with food started.
I am a Kasi boy and grew up with my mom in Khayelitsha. I started cooking when I was 5 years old and the first-ever ingredient I learnt to prepare was rice. Growing up, my mom would only get home late and still have to cook food for us from scratch. This meal was usually gravy with either pilchard or eggs, and rice. By teaching me how to make rice, I could get dinner started sooner so I didn’t have to wait too long to eat or rely on bread as my meal every night. This was the start of my journey with food and is actually still one of my fondest food memories.
Further down the line, when completing my matric year, I wasn’t quite sure what my next step was going to be. My mother suggested cheffing considering I’d always enjoyed working in the kitchen and being around food. I laughed at her initially because I didn’t know anything about cheffing or that it could be recognised as a serious career. Growing up in a township, there would be people wearing chef jackets on street corners selling vetkoek and sometimes people would even wear tucked-in chef jackets at groove! To cut a long story short, I decided to give it a go and I’ve never looked back.
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How would you describe your cooking style?
There’s always a piece of home in every dish I make. Whether I’m cooking Italian, Mexican or Asian cuisine, my dishes are rooted in Africa and you’ll always be able to pick up the distinct flavours and warmth.
What drew you toward fine dining?
Honestly, I think it was just my drive to be better. I’ve only ever been exposed to a couple of family restaurants and catering groups, no fine-dining restaurants, so it still surprises me to hear that my food is considered fine dining! I’ve always known my craft to be taken as a bit of a joke, so for the longest time, people didn’t actually know I was a chef until I appeared on TopChefSA. Cooking has always been my happy space, so I made sure that I kept my passion alive, worked hard and continued to be better, just for myself. This drive led me to increasingly refined dishes…or maybe I just like the finer things in life!
You treat the plate like a canvas and create food that resembles modern art. Where do you get your inspiration for your dishes and creations?
It comes from a love of beautiful things. I don’t actively practice plating; it’s rather something that comes to me when the plate and food are both in front of me. I’ve always worked well under pressure, especially when there’s no room for error, so I think my plating is a strong reflection of my journey as a chef.
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What made you decide to become a private chef?
It was a certain feeling, one that I did not enjoy at all. I had worked in a hotel, catering company, events company and restaurant. Although I loved my job, every time I was at work I’d feel like I was meant for more in life, not just to face the four walls and keep doing what I’m told to do behind the scenes. I actually started searching on the internet ‘How do you know if you love something or are passionate about it’. At one point, part of me wanted to give up completely. It took me 3 years to eventually resign from my job and venture into private cheffing, despite being told that I wouldn’t crack it in Cape Town. It wasn’t easy and I struggled a lot, but if I hadn’t pushed through those first two years, I would never have made it to where I am today.
What is your favourite part about being a private chef?
There’s so much I love about private cheffing: the freedom of creating, being able to meet people from different walks of life, learning about different cultures and getting to cook in the most beautiful kitchens. I love the challenge to create dishes I’ve never imagined making or that I never even knew existed. But the best part is finally serving the different courses to my clients, hearing the stark sound of fork and knife hitting the plate and the “mmm mmm mm” hum from the clients that follows. That’s the moment when I know I did a good job.
Can you explain briefly what goes into an evening of private cheffing for readers that are interested in that part of the industry?
First things first, I meet the client and visit their kitchen. I literally open every single cupboard to quickly scan what tools they have for us to use – they usually have everything…sometimes more! From there, my team and I arrange things like groceries and extra equipment. While they unpack, I set up the dining table. Sometimes I bring my own plates in case I don’t like the client’s ones to make sure they complement the food well. My team and I start prepping and cooking 3 hours before service starts. During this time, the clients also want to chat and learn more about me and my journey. It’s important as a private chef to have a good energy and to let your personality shine since you’ve been welcomed into someone’s personal space.
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Do you have any advice or tips for success that you’d like to share with our readers?
We all want to be great and successful, but remember that validation can only go so far. Your gut will never lie to you but the next person might. If something makes sense to you, then go for it. If you fail and still believe that you need to do it, then pick yourself up and keep going. Work hard even when no one is watching because you’d be surprised how much of a student you are for your own life. YOU ARE CAPABLE!
Sweet or savoury
Your go-to meal in a pinch
Rice and pilchards
Your ultimate culinary destination
Your dream client
Someone you would love to have dinner with
A tool in the kitchen you cannot live without
My chef’s knife
To make a booking with Chef Aya, contact [email protected]
Feature image: VICUSCHKA via Getty Images