The highlight of my week two weeks ago was being able to sit down with Chef Benny Masekwameng, one of the three MasterChef SA judges, and Tsogo Sun Executive Chef. He is incredibly nice, and overwhelmed about how his own career and life has changed since participating in MasterChef SA, much like that of the Finalists.
Chef Benny was in Cape Town for the official launch of the Southern Sun rebranding to Tsogo Sun, which was held at The Cullinan hotel. Previously Executive Chef of the MondoVino restaurant at Montecasino in Johannesburg, Chef Benny has been promoted to Executive Chef, responsible for promoting all the restaurants at the Tsogo Sun’s 95 hotels and 15 casinos around the country. Tsogo means ‘rising’ in Tswana, Chef Benny told me. Applying his MasterChef SA judging skills, Chef Benny challenged the Cape Town guests to participate in an ingredient test, identifying the 13 ingredients of the curry he had prepared.
I asked Chef Benny about the MasterChef SA prize offered of running the MondoVino restaurant at Montecasino, taking over his previous job. The MasterChef SA winner will receive three month’s training in people and financial support he said, and his/her hand will be held by a mentor as well as by Chef Benny. He said that the MasterChef SA reality TV show builds up the Finalists in what they learn, giving the winner a ‘crash course’ in running a restaurant kitchen, including ingredient pairing, budgeting, and food and wine pairing.
Chef Benny’s role in MasterChef SA was to support the contestants, many having made significant sacrifices to participate in the show. He said that he feels privileged to have been part of their journey, it mirroring his own journey of humble beginnings, and giving up many things to pursue his dream to become a chef. He grew up in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, and was strongly influenced by his mother. She started her own business, after taking a cooking course, selling pap, stew, salad, as well as vetkoek, outside nearby factories. While his dream was to become an Electrical Engineer, it was a visit to Durban to visit his friends that led him to Technikon Natal, and he decided to study a 3-year Catering Management course in a city that gave him some space from home. On graduating he was appointed as a Trainee at the Hilton Hotel in Durban, where he worked for more than six years, promoted over this period. The job took him overseas regularly, to promote local food at events held at South African embassies, and it was these events that taught him ‘showmanship’, in interacting with the guests. He moved to the Elangeni Hotel, his first Southern Sun appointment, and he has stayed with the group since then, moving back to Johannesburg as Executive Sous Chef at the OR Thambo Southern Sun. The promotion to Executive Chef at MondoVino restaurant happened 16 months ago, and since the completion of Season 1 of MasterChef SA he is in charge of promoting all the Tsogo Sun restaurants, being its ‘face of food’.
MondoVino restaurant is Italian-themed, but with an African influence, also serving bobotie, oxtail, pap and wors, chakalaka, and its design is ‘modern, young, and hip’. It is ‘casual dining‘, and offers ‘3 – 4 star service‘, he said. It has shifted in its focus on being family-orientated, with a special menu for the children.
M-Net has a five-year licence for MasterChef SA, and there is talk of a Season 2. Chef Benny said it is a bonus for him that Tsogo Sun is a sponsor. His own kitchen staff is watching MasterChef SA, and it gives them hope that they too can develop as he has done, and they are proud to work with him. For him it has been special to meet all the young aspirant chefs, and to inspire them. He is keeping up to date with many of them, and he is delighted about the encouraging messages he is receiving, and the promotion and growth it has given him personally, much as the MasterChef SA Finalists have grown and succeeded too. Just after MasterChef SA started airing, his first baby daughter Dimakatso was born, named after his mother. We laughed about his ‘TV flirt’ with Lungi Nhlanhla, about whom he says that ‘she knows how to combine her flavours’, and that ‘she can cook’. With fellow Finalists Deena Naidoo and Manisha Naidu, Lungi knows her flavours. Yet, he said, all eighteen the Finalists had the potential of getting to the top.
Fellow judge and Chef Andrew Atkinson is a natural ‘clown‘, he said, always making jokes on set, and these kept the energy flowing. But, jokes aside, he knows his food. Chef Pete Goffe-Wood was full of jokes too, but he was ‘tough on camera, telling it like it is‘. He praised his fellow MasterChef SA judges, who had more cooking experience than he does, but always treated him as an equal and made him feel part of the judging team, even though Chefs Andrew and Pete had worked together at the Beverly Hills hotel many years ago. He was inspired by them, and are two of our country’s best, he added. He can exchange information with them now, and pick up the phone to them, being ‘brothers’ now! He assured me that there were no production influences in the judging of the dishes and elimination of the Finalists, and confirmed that the Finalists eliminated simply were those that made the most mistakes in a particular challenge.
To tie in with its sponsorship of MasterChef SA as a ‘Hospitality Host’, and Chef Benny’s involvement in the show as a judge, Tsogo Sun has launched Wednesday Night Dinners, a ‘themed dish of the week inspired by the show, and you be the judge’! The hotel group is advertising this in the Sunday Times Food Weekly.
Chef Benny has grown as much as his Finalists on MasterChef SA have, and he said that initially it was ‘terrifying’ to be on TV, surrounded by nine cameras, but now he is used to it, and he would love to do more of it, having discovered a new side of himself. Meeting with Chef Benny for about an hour reinforced what a nice person he is, the reason why he is so well-liked by the MasterChef SA TV viewers.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage