Vredehoek-based chef Dion Vengatass has cooked for a number of celebrities, from Jay-Z to Beyonce, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey – but cooking for the man down the road gives him just as much joy.
Mr Vengatass, sous chef at the Mount Nelson, is one of the semi-finalists vying for the prestigious San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year Awards.
He said he can track his love for food and cooking to as far back as the age of four. “I was highly influenced by the elderly ladies in our family. Coming from an Indian background, food is not just about keeping you going, it’s a culture. Every ingredient that we use is built into us from a young age.”
Mr Vengatass, who grew up in Johannesburg, said what inspired him most was the respect the women in his family had for the ingredients. “They could take cheap ingredients and turn them into magical meals.”
One of the other things, says Mr Vengatass was their understanding of flavour, knowing when too add a little bit of turmeric, for example, can make all the difference in a dish. “Growing up with my ouma and helping her clean beans and stamping the masala I was always intrigued and asked questions. I was not even tall enough to reach the stoves back then but still very inquisitive.”
When he got to high school, he took a subject called hotel catering, which was similar to home economics, and found himself in a class with 14 girls.
“I loved it, we cooked once a week on a Thursday and I always looked forward to it.”
He didn’t study at a culinary institute but rather decided to go to hotel management school at the Swiss Hotel School. “One of the toughest things about moving up in the industry is knowing how to manage people. That is more important than what you think the basics might be.”
He says he remembers getting his first job at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg. It was just after he had returned from doing an internship in the United States. At the hotel he worked with an executive chef by the name of Rudi Liebenberg. “While I was working I never realised that I had made such an impression on him and he saw talent in me.”
When Mr Liebenberg moved to Cape Town he brought Mr Vengatass down with him. “It was a big shock that he chose me to come with his team but I never thought twice about it.”
One of the reasons Mr Vengatass decided to make the move to Cape Town was the reputation it had for being the food capital of the country. “I got here and it was an overwhelming experience coming to the Mount Nelson in the beginning. If you are a true chef cooking for celebrities should never bother you. It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking for them or someone who comes from around the corner for a meal. You should be more focused on the ingredients. You get more excited cooking for another chef.”
Mr Vengatass says the main reason Cape Town is establishing itself as the number one food city in the country is because of the local producers. “You don’t have that personal relationship with your suppliers in Johannesburg,” he says.
In Cape Town, however, he adds, he knows his suppliers by name. “They are just as passionate about producing those ingredients as you are about using them. That is what sets Cape Town apart.”
He says he started taking part in competitions to raise his profile.
In 2011 he won the Unilever Food Solutions Chef of the Year. Since then he has gone from strength to strength.
“You get this hunger (for competitions) and in a sense it is about proving something to yourself. Getting into the semis (of the San Pellegrino competition) was the cherry on top. I tried entering two times before but never got in.”
Having just turned 30, this was Mr Vengatass’ last opportunity to enter the competition as only under-30s are allowed to enter.
The dish that got him into the semi-finals was based on childhood memories and aromas of curry leaves, ginger and green chilli. “It is about taking it back to the first time I ever tasted shellfish curry.”
He is also on the national culinary team who will be representing South Africa in Germany later this year at the International Exhibition of Culinary Arts, which is described as the Olympics of the food world and takes place every four years. It takes place in October.
Asked about what drives him, Mr Vengatass says it’s never been about the money. “It’s the satisfaction of the small thing and the smile on your guests’ faces after they’ve had your food. That is what it should be about.”
One day he hopes to open up his own small restaurant.