Simphiwe Zondi’s love of baking started when, as a small boy growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, he made mud cakes and proudly presented them to his grandmother in her best Tupperware!
They may have been inedible but it started him on his journey to becoming a chef and baker, who has gone on to make special occasion cakes for a host of South African celebrities including Thembi Nyandeni, Basetsana Kumalo and Bonang Mathebe.
But it’s not only the rich and famous that this Capsicum Culinary Studio graduate bakes for.
He started an NPO called Isiphephelo Sempilo, which helps children with basic, everyday needs and also recently launched a programme whereby he makes a cake, on a monthly basis, for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have never had a birthday cake before.
Zondi recently partnered with a team that will be producing vegan cakes and pastries to be launched officially next year.
The 24-year-old Zondi, who now lives in Sunninghill, put down his whisk long enough to answer some questions.
Tell us about your culinary journey:
I lived with my grandmother in KZN when I was a small boy and moved to Johannesburg in 2000 to stay with my parents. I went to Bordeaux Primary School and Bryanston High where I was deputy head-boy.
I served as vice chairman of the schools catering team in 2013 and 2014.
What made you want to become a baker/chef?
Besides being passionate about baking from a very young age, one of the main reasons why I wanted to become a chef was because of how my mum had so much control in the kitchen. She made cooking and baking look so easy.
I loved how she would be baking and cooking at the same time but kept things under control so that not a single muffin or pot would burn.
She made the most delicious food and baked goods and that brought so much happiness in our home. I loved seeing us all together sharing a meal she had made.
I thought if food brings so much joy and love to people, I want to be like my mum when I’m older and make people happy.
Tell us about your studies?
I graduated with a diploma in patisserie and sugar craft from Capsicum Culinary Studio. During my time at Capsicum, I was elected to the student council and chosen to be part of the South African Association Young Chef Club.
It gave me the opportunity to get involved behind the scenes of Top Chef South Africa and where I got to work with Neil Anthony and Lorna Maseko.
I have also had the privilege of being part of Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff pastry department, Indaba Hotel pastry department and a cake artist at 180 Degrees Catering and Confectionary in Wynberg.
I was also fortunate to gain some experience and knowledge in Dubai where I worked as a cake artist for a few months before joining corporate. I am excited to finally be doing what I love doing full time. My culinary journey has been nothing short of amazing and the best part is that it’s just getting started.
Who are some of the celebrities you have made cakes for?
Thembi Nyandeni, Basetsana Kumalo, Bonang Mathebe – for her House of Bonang bubbly launch, Celeste Ntuli, Ayanda Borotho and Thembsie Matu.
I am thankful for the support I have received and the exposure they have given me on all of their social media platforms. It has grown my brand and I look forward to a long relationship.
Who are some chefs you follow?
The very first famous chef I followed was Buddy Valastro (The Cake Boss). He has been my role model ever since I heard of his show. I was also inspired by his story of how he dropped out of school after his father passed away to run the family bakery.
I had the honour of meeting him in South Africa in 2014. I remember taking my portfolio to show him and his words were, ‘Maybe one day you will be the Cake Boss of South Africa’.
I am also a fan of Jamie Oliver. He displays so much love and enjoyment from what he does. His drive and passion are contagious. I believe there is nothing better in life than to wake up and to do something you love and passionate about and that is exactly what Jamie is doing.
Chef Reuben Riffel is one of my favourite local chefs whom I wish to one day meet. He has been so successful in his career and has achieved so much through hard work and determination.
He has set a fantastic example for all South Africans who aspire to be great chefs one day.
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What are your favourite cakes/pastries and desserts to make?
One of Simphiwe Zondi’s delicious and sweet creations.
I love making biscuits. They remind me of my childhood and the days my mom and I would spend hours in kitchen making biscuits for my grandmother when she came to visit.
You can never go wrong with a classic vanilla cake.
It is easy and quick to make and also happens to be one of my favourites. Malva pudding is my absolute favourite dessert, especially when it is served with a creamy homemade ice-cream.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I always take the time and effort to advance my career, skills, and knowledge. In five years, I plan to have acquired more in-depth knowledge in business, patisserie and sugar craft.
Those new skills will help me advance my career and to use the knowledge I have gained to grow our bakery. I also aim to teach and pass on my knowledge to students less fortunate and who cannot afford the fees to go to a culinary institution.
Would you recommend cheffing as a career?
Like any other job, being a chef is not easy. It is hard work and very long hours. You need to be passionate about it and be willing to put in the extra hours.
I’ve had days where I wanted to give up baking and try something new because it got so exhausting. Every time I wanted to give up, I reminded myself how far I’ve come, where I want to go and the love I have for baking and cake decorating.
The kitchen raised me and I’m driven by passion. One of my greatest experiences was when I made a cake for a one-year-old. Her parents came with her to collect the cake and she wouldn’t even let me touch her. When I came out holding the cake, her face lit up and she gave me the biggest hug ever.
I found so much joy in that moment; knowing that my hard work, time and love spent in making that cake was appreciated and brought so much happiness to this little girl.
I’ve always been an artist. I use my cakes to present my artistic side. How I present my cakes is very personal: there’s a story behind every cake.
Anything else to add?
I have always said and I still say that if a mosquito has the power to awaken an entire human family, you as a human being have the power to change the world.
Don’t ever feel discouraged to chase your dream. There are so many people that are too afraid to take that chance, start a business or chase after their dream job.
You have to go through some hard times before you live your dream. Allow the process, it will make you wiser and stronger.