Cooking with his grandmother from a young age is what inspired newly appointed pastry chef at the Table Bay Hotel, Thabile Mlonyeni, to pursue a career in chef’s whites, but it was his creativity that led him to pastry-making.
“My career path was straight forward for me. When my grandmother taught me how to bake something, I was the only one of my siblings to get it perfectly. She encouraged me to be a chef.”
Thabile, who lives in Khayelitsha, grew up in the Eastern Cape, and started learning from his grandmother before he was 10.
During high school, Thabile chose consumer studies to help him further his career in cooking, with his grandmother cheering him on.
After school, he came to Cape Town to attend False Bay college, and studied hospitality. “That’s where I specialised in pastry,” he said.
“I love being creative and I love decorating and the lecturers saw this. So when they told me that pastry was better suited for me, I said ‘it’s okay, I like this’, because I love being creative.”
After graduating, he started working at a bed and breakfast in Khayelitsha for a few months to get his foot in the door. “I really wanted to be in hospitality, and my dream was to work in the big hotels.”
Thereafter, he started working at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) alongside the head pastry chef at the time. “Most of my skills come from there. I always used to experiment – I took what I learnt from the chef, combined it with my own knowledge and constantly tried to improve myself.”
Thabile soon became the head pastry chef at the CTICC.
After eight years of pastry-making for conferencing and learning the ropes, Thabile felt ready to explore more à la carte pastry, so he resigned and went to work at a hotel in Century City, running the pastry kitchen.
Thabile then took on a new challenge, and went to work at a spa to learn about healthy desserts. “At the spa, they don’t deal with sugar – they use xylotol and some coconut sugar. I learnt to cook vegan, healthy, and gluten-free desserts.
“I gained so much experience in different surroundings and put them all together. ”
Now, at the Table Bay, Thabile has all the knowledge from different backgrounds to be able to create dishes for all types of people who visit the hotel, he says.
“It was straightforward for me.”
While Thabile loves traditional desserts, he says cooking modern pastry keeps the ideas fresh.
“I try to be a little different to the other chefs. I like balance. Now, people would like to be healthier, so I try to reduce it, while making a delicious dessert, but not too sweet.
“I also try to balance the flavours. If something is sweet, I like to add a fresh aspect like a fruit, or a crunchy aspect.”
One of his signature dishes is a Turkish delight cheesecake, a winner whenever it is on Table Bay’s dessert menu.
Mirror glaze and macaroons are also his speciality, he says. “People usually struggle with it but its all about patience.”
He also experiments with different desserts and recently introduced twists on the more traditional tarts – such as raspberry éclairs, and orange meringue tart.
Asked about the food trends, Thabile said he doesn’t wait for trends. “My mind works all the time. When I put out a menu, I am already thinking of what to do next. It makes it easier to plan when trends and seasons do come. ”
However, he said people are starting to eat healthier, and his experience caters for that.
However, Thabile’s personal favourite dessert is strawberry cheesecake. “I make it myself, because I like the balance I create in a tart.
He also takes birthday cake orders from his community, baking at home on his days off.
“Baking is not something I do only at work. I bake with my children too, and when I get an idea I try it at home and I refine it and bring it back to the kitchen here.”