Career transitions aren’t easy, but Lentswe Bhengu’s decision to follow his passion is one he doesn’t regret. “It’s funny because I’d been cooking on the sly since I was about 9 or 10,” says the 30-year-old who was born and raised in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
“While I was doing my BCom and working at investment finance companies, I’d been going to open days at culinary schools.”
The idea of making such a big switch was scary, especially considering his mother also worked in finance while his father was a successful businessman.
But he found reassurance after a discussion with his dad about the pursuit of happiness.
“He told me that if you ever need to sort out your life, just sit down and have a meeting with yourself,” Bhengu recalls.
“And if ever you find yourself doing something you’re not happy with, stop right there. Or, it will carry on being that way until you’re 40, 50 or 60, saying, ‘I should have been an artist’. Meanwhile, you’re stuck behind a desk.”
Bhengu took this sage advice and, in 2010, quit his corporate job. He enrolled at The Culinary Academy, a prestigious school in the Cape Winelands between Stellenbosch and Paarl. After graduating as a professional chef, he went on to work at restaurants as well as catering companies around Durban and Cape Town.
“Of course there were challenges,” he says with a laugh. “I was 25 and my mindset was very much ‘I’m an adult, I’m an adult, I’m an adult’. But I was sitting in class with 18-year-olds who’d just finished school.”
Besides the change in attitude, Bhengu had to change his work ethic too. In finance, he was used to clocking in every day and working set hours behind a desk. In the kitchen? Not so. “You arrive before everyone else and you work until the last guest leaves,” says Bhengu. “You’re a server behind the servers in the restaurant because no one ever gets to see you.”
Despite 16-hour shifts on his feet, and perhaps because he was used to intensity from his office days, Bhengu persevered. Indeed, it was his finance background and business acumen that led him to co-create Green Zebra Productions, a film and media production house.
He and his business partner produced Africa on a Plate, the country’s first food web series. Bhengu provided online food content including weekly recipes, videos and blogs. In 2014, the company was commissioned to produce a 14-part television version for The Africa Channel, an American network. The show has been on air in the US, Canada and The Caribbean for just over a year. It’s also broadcast on SAA flights.
“I still use my finance background and experience in running a company, so it was never in vain,” he says. “But things are different now. I love the freedom to express myself on the plate and I get excited when I start developing my art. It’s a passion, not just a job.”
That you have to love cooking to pursue it as a professional career is one of the biggest lessons Bhengu has learnt over the years. It’s also one of the nuggets of wisdom he’s been offering as the South African Ambassador for the Chefs Who Share Young Chef Award, an annual initiative that aims to showcase and nurture South Africa’s young culinary talent.
For the past two years, Bhengu has joined a panel of judges to select the most innovative canapé from up-and-coming chefs from around the country. Seven finalists then work with 14 of the country’s best chefs, all the while waiting to hear who will win the top prize: a working trip to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe.
“The biggest value I add to the seven (finalists) is letting them know how the industry works,” Bhengu says. “It’s not all that glamorous, but if you pursue it hard enough and you put enough passion into it, you can find the glamour.
“You don’t do it so that people will say, ‘OMG! You’re a chef! That’s so cool!’ because it’s not that cool,” he says. “You leave work dirty, you smell weird, and you always get to the party after everyone else has already left. So you’re not the coolest person around. But you know you’re cool because everyone else is happy. Why? Because you served them great food.”
As someone who loves writing, Bhengu hopes to publish a book one day, although he hopes it won’t take as long as the “one day” to becoming a chef. He’d also like to open a restaurant but insists, with another laugh, that we keep the details secret until the right time.
What he wants right now is more experience before taking the next giant leap. Travelling across the continent for his television show will teach him about different flavours and how to bring them together into something unique.
“I’m sitting on eight years of professional experience in the kitchen but I’ve been cooking way longer than that,” he says. “But I feel like I need to explore and learn more before I can say, ‘Here’s my plate. And the reason I’m charging X is because of A, B and C.’ At the moment I only have A. I’m going out to look for B and C.”