Chef Zola Nene uses South African food to unify on Gordon Ramsay Uncharted

South Africa - Chef Zola Nene (L) observes as Gordon Ramsay tops grilled fish with ushatini, a combination of onions and tomatoes. (National Geographic/Jon Kroll)
South Africa - Chef Zola Nene (L) observes as Gordon Ramsay tops grilled fish with ushatini, a combination of onions and tomatoes. (National Geographic/Jon Kroll) /

With flavor from the braai, Chef Zola Nene brings South African traditions to Gordon Ramsay Uncharted.

South Africa is filled with a melting pot of cultures. Chef Zola Nene, a Zulu chef, celebrates the connection of food and culture, and even a taste of tradition, in each of her recipes. In this particular Gordon Ramsay Uncharted episode, Chef Nene is more than guiding hand, she is a powerful teacher.

While South Africa might draw visitors to see the Big Five, the country has a vast and varied culture. Through history, the various cultures have borrowed and blended various aspects of their backgrounds. Still, the connection between the people, the land and the culture is deeply rooted.

In this particular Gordon Ramsay Uncharted episode, Gordon is guided through his exploration by the celebrated Chef Zola Nene. Host of the popular South African show, “Espresso” and author of the cookbook, “Simply Delicious,” her food exemplifies her own personal journey.

After learning many traditional recipes from her Zulu mother and grandmother, those home-grown cooking ideas have helped her hone her craft. Although South Africa did not offer an easy path to her culinary destiny, she took both her UK culinary experience and her educational knowledge from the Institute of Culinary Arts to forge a successful path.

Today, Chef Zola Nene is a respected female, person of color, South African chef. While her recipes many be approachable, there is always a rooted connection to the dishes that she prepares. For her food is more than sustenance, it is nourishment beyond the plate.

As seen in this exclusive clip, Gordon is definitely in for a new culinary adventure.

Ahead of the Gordon Ramsay South Africa episode that will be airing on Sunday, June 14, Chef Zola Nene graciously answered some questions not only about the episode but also about South African cuisine and culture.

Chef Zola Nene shares her thoughts on South African cuisine.

For many people, the connection between food and culture is relatable. Whether it is the Sunday dinner with the “gravy” that has been passed down from grandma or the favorite birthday dinner that is only for that special occasion, everyone can relate to that food and culture connection.

Chef Nene said, “Food is such a huge part of any culture, it’s often in the food traditions that a culture continues to live as recipes and dishes are passed down through the generations. I think that food is definitely a connection to the past, the nostalgia that surrounds foods helps keep past memories alive.”

When looking at the vast South African history, even traditional recipes have influences from other groups and cultures. For example, the KwaZulu-Natal region has “the highest population of Indian people outside of India.” Given that fact, it is understandable that “Indian culture has infiltrated the food culture.”

For Chef Nene, the fragrant spices from Indian cuisine can be found in many of her dishes. She said, as a “KZN-born Zulu woman, (I) definitely grew up with lots of spices included in my mom’s cooking. My mom always added a touch of curry spices to her traditional stews and meals.” Again, it is another example of tradition influencing the flavors on the plate.

Since many foodies watch Gordon Ramsay Uncharted for culinary inspiration, the dishes in the finale meal are often a highlight. For this week’s episode, National Geographic shared two recipes. Looking at both recipes, the present the varied flavors of this style of cuisine.

Zola Nene, Gordon Ramsay Uncharted
Gordon Ramsay Uncharted, South Africa recipe, photo provided by Nat Geo Channel /

Borrowing from the English influence, the chakalaka has a connection to classic English baked beans. As Chef Nene said, “Yes, chakalaka uses baked beans as one of the ingredients in the dish. Due to colonization, English dishes and ingredients have definitely made their way into South African kitchens… Fish and Chips is definitely a favourite dish – how could it not be in a country surrounded by ocean. Pies are also a favourite food on the go, but we add spices and use game meats a filling variations.”

As seen in the recipe, the bold spices amplify the simple ingredients. In some ways, the humble ingredients seem to bring together many aspects of South African cuisine.

Chef Nene said, “My ancestors reared cattle and grew all the food themselves, they worked hard to produce the food that ended up on their plate. Eating from the land meant making the most of what was in season and available, as well as making things last. Wasting anything was not an option, that’s why so many traditional dishes use what are considered “humble” ingredients [I’m not sure that humble is quite the correct word though]… we make use of every part of the animal or plant.”

Whether it is humble, resourceful or respectful, these recipes focus on using the food and cooking methods that are available. Putting aside the complicated techniques and gadgets, the focus is about bringing people together over a plate of food.

In some ways, the braai, a traditional grilling method in South Africa, can be the centerpiece of the community. Instead of people just coming to gather around the table, the whole process of cooking is part of the celebrations.

As Chef Nene said, “In all of my family traditional gatherings, cooking meat over the fire is something that is always part of the celebrations. Often, the men gather around the fire, tending to the freshly slaughtered meat while the women tend to the bubbling cast iron pots also simmering away over open fire. Cooking for traditional events is definitely a social affair and the whole community often gets involved in preparations and of course part of the celebrations. Cooking over open fire is something that resonates with many South African cultures, it may look very different depending on the household, but, the core idea of if being a social event or gathering is the same.”

In the second recipe shared for this episode, the whole fish on the grill shows how the grill itself can add flavor. Although some people might be intimidated to cook a whole fish, it is easier than it seems.

Zola Nene, Gordon Ramsay Uncharted
Gordon Ramsay Uncharted, South Africa recipe, photo provided by Nat Geo Channel /

While this recipe recommends a particular fish. Chef Nene commented that substitutes can be made. She mentioned that “any firm white-fleshed fish can be used.” More importantly, she encouraged home cooks to use “sustainably sourced, non-endangered fish.” Again, this comment is another example of the chef and the local cuisine being respectful the land.

Personally, having been to South Africa, Chef Nene has captured an aspect of the South African culture that still resonates with me. The warm hospitality that is conveyed at a South African table has lasted with me long after those food pictures have faded in my mind. From the aromas to the tastes, the moments with the people around the table come back with every bite.

For many people, not just chefs, food tells a story. It has been said that food is the universal language. For Chef Nene, she believes in this idea as well.

“I absolutely agree, which is why I love food so much and wanted to become a chef. Food is a unifier, it’s the one thing that we all have in common as human beings. Food is something we all connect with and connect over. Sitting around a table and enjoying a meal is such a beautiful, human action, feeding people is the way that I express love… that’s what my food is, an expression of love.”

As people feel more divided in this world, it could be the time to take a step back and find that commonality. In times where words cannot convey what needs to be said, maybe a plate of food can be the expression of love that everyone needs.

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Chef Zola Nene is a South African chef and author of “Simply Delicious.”

Gordon Ramsay Uncharted airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.

Have you been to South Africa? Do you agree with the idea that food can be an expression of love?