Boom! The word, used when she’s finished a fabulous dish, accompanied by a wide smile and a flirtatious wink, has become something of a signature for homegrown Food Network star, Siba Mtongana, writes Glenda Nevill.
The celebrity chef and food editor has become a global foodie phenomenon renowned for her show, Siba’s Table. From Poland – where she is the country’s number one TV chef – to Dubai, where a woman’s husband bought her a car after she started cooking Siba-style, the Eastern Cape-born cook has racked up millions of loyal fans. “There were queues around the block of people waiting to meet her at last year’s Taste of Dubai,” says Nick Thorogood, senior vice president of content and marketing (EMEA) for Scripps Networks, owners of Food Network.
Thorogood was in Cape Town for the media launch of Mtongana’s latest show, Siba’s Table Fast Feasts, debuting tomorrow (Thursday) night on Food Network (DStv channel 175) at 9pm. Fifty percent of recipes downloaded from Food Network’s United Kingdom website are those of Mtongana, he says, where her popularity is on a par with the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten. Her show is flighted in 12 different time zones, and was recently launched in the United States too. Recently Mtongana featured as a judge in the South African edition of the Food Network favourite, Chopped.
Thorogood discovered Mtongana. In line with Food Network’s strategy to open new markets for its shows by firstly, having established stars do series in countries that show growth in audiences (think Reza Mohammed’s Reza’s African Kitchen), and secondly, by discovering new talent in those countries, he was interviewing various chefs at the One and Only hotel in Cape Town.
“The chefs were coming in one after the other. But they just didn’t have the ‘va va voom’ we were looking for. Then Siba walked through the door and I knew we’d found our star,” he said. “She brought alive the spirit of the programme we wanted to make.”
The day she was to sign her contract with Food Network, Mtongana had to make an admission: she was pregnant. She thought they’d dump her, but she was wrong. The decided to work around it, doing the series in two parts. It was hit, and the network was only too happy to offer her a contract for a second season. And guess what? Their star announced she was pregnant again!
The show is filmed on location in Cape Town at the Mtongana’s Hout Bay home. Siba’s Table, says Thorogood, is about creating and sharing, so works in a home setting. It has also made a star of her graphic designer husband, Brian. The couple have become instantly recognisable celebrities at home and abroad. Is the series filmed in your actual kitchen, The Media Online asked Brian? Not really, he replied. There is a replica of their kitchen in the grounds of their home.
Thorogood explains that global superstar Nigella Lawson, who often features family and friends eating at her table in her house, actually owns a home nearby were the show is shot. “I’ve been a guest at her dinners and what you don’t see is the huge amount of stuff needed, from stock to equipment, that’s needed to film shows like this,” he says, offering a plate of wickedly good cheese straws – Mtongana’s recipe, of course – made with Wellington’s sweet chilli sauce (Wellingtons/Hinds are sponsors).
Mtongana says she went to her interview with Thorogood straight from a deadline (she was food editor of DRUM magazine and did a TV show then for DStv’s Mzanzi Magic channel) and was so tired she “babbled and talked and talked and talked”. No matter, it was the start of what she calls a “life changing” experience for herself and Brian.
Despite her mother’s concern that studying food and nutrition wouldn’t lead to a showstopping career, Mtongana’s interest in food started at home in the Eastern Cape where her mother had a small vegetable garden. “She grew spinach and beets and herbs… and she would send me out to pick ingredients. I used to ask her, ‘How do you know how much to put in’ and she’d say, ‘You feel it with your hands’. To this day, when I’m creating a recipe, I first do it freehand and only later take notes, once I’ve ‘felt’ it,” she says.
Mtongana’s undoubted popularity no doubt stems from the fact that her cooking is accessible. She is a fan of what she calls “fast tricks and cheats”, something every hardworking person appreciates: good food, made fast, looking tasty and tasting wonderful. “Life’s too short,” Mtongana often says in her shows as she whips a store-bought red velvet cake into something that looks as if it comes from a five-star French kitchen.
And that’s the thinking behind Siba’s Table Fast Feasts. It shows “show-stopping Siba-licious” feasts that are “super speedy and super delicious”. There’s Weekday Wonderful (the harissa tabbouleh IS wonderful), Speedy Sunday (have to make her pesto stuffed lamb chops), Brisk Braai (oh that red salad…), and Feast from the East (chicken teriyaki to die for).
Thorogood calls her a “national treasure” and he’s 100% right about that.
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