Meet the Badass Chef & Pop-Up Restaurateur Changing South Africa's Food Game

The pop-up restaurant experience that's making South Africa’s exclusive dining-out culture accessible to the young, black and urban.

Imagine a dhal curry, but cooked in coconut and creamy sweet potato. Or a mild lamb vindaloo served with beetroot and pomegranate biriyani. It’s authentic Indian cuisine but with an added flourish. The Off The Wall Pop-Up Restaurant, co-owned by South African chef and food stylist Khanya Mzongwana and her boyfriend, DJ Bubbles, is a standout addition to South Africa’s food scene.

In a short space of time, Off The Wall’s growingly-popular monthly dinners have begun to turn the tables on South Africa’s exclusive dining-out culture. In the process, they’ve made it more accessible to the young, black and urban of Joburg and Pretoria.

Despite a shaky start, it wasn’t long before Off the Wall hit a stride. It now caters to a group of 50 dinner guests on a monthly basis at +27 Cafe in Pretoria. Every month sees a new food theme, from Italian and Indian to Egyptian, with décor to match.

Diners at the Off the Wall Pop-Up Restaurant. Photo by Stuart Hendricks.

For Mzongwana, food is an intersection where we all meet. “Whether it’s about texture, flavour, there are a lot of things that we have in common,” she tells me as we sit down at Life Grand Cafe in Hazelwood, Pretoria. Mzongwana was born in Port Elizabeth, and spent much of her life there until her mid-20s. Off the Wall was the product of a childhood spent around Xhosa women that loved a grand food affair.

“For every occasion, we would celebrate it with lots of food,” she shares. “The usual stuff you would eat in the hood, but it just had so much flavour and love. It was just humble food. Good food.”

Mzongwana’s food entrepreneur journey began at The Aztec Kitchen, a takeaway shop she started with her mother when she was 21. Nuzzled between a shebeen and a church hall in central Port Elizabeth, it started off as a takeaway for sandwiches, burgers and lasagnes for its predominantly student clientele. Slowly, it turned into a restaurant. Fresh fish became one of their staple offerings thanks to their close proximity to the harbour.

Khanya Mzongwana. Photo by Stuart Hendricks.

Sadly, the kitchen came to an end after three years due to bankruptcy. But Mzongwana’s connection with food and cooking continued. She moved to Johannesburg and began a college course in professional cookery and culinary arts before dropping out due to fees. Mzongwana also just felt like she didn’t want to be there anymore.

“We weren’t really learning how to be artists. We weren’t being encouraged to be artists,” she says. Instead, they were encouraged to find any old hotel that would have them. “There wasn’t really any entrepreneurial spirit in school.”

It was in between working at different restaurants that Mzongwana suggested the idea of a pop-up restaurant to her boyfriend, Sakhile Ndlazi, otherwise known as vinyl enthusiast DJ Bubbles. Off the Wall was officially born in June 2014.

But Mzongwana’s first official pop-up wasn’t entirely a success.

Hosted in Sunnyside, Pretoria, it was rough and makeshift. “We got crates, put these slabs of wood and then threw it over a sari. It was a lot of our friends and family, and just people close to us,” laughs Mzongwana.

DJ Bubbles and Khanya Mzongwana. Photo by Stuart Hendricks.

Food and music have always been a formidable collaboration, and Off the Wall is no exception. DJ Bubbles plays a mix of Motown, dinnertime jazz, funk and soul as diners dig into each course. “[The music] kind of sets the tone for everything, and if I can’t communicate what we’re trying to do through the food, I think the music kind of says it for me,” Mzongwana says.

It’s been two years since the whole operation started, and when Mzongwana isn’t prepping for her next pop-up event, she’s busy experimenting with food menu development and food styling. She’s already contributed recipes to Pretoria’s African Beer Emporium and Poolside in Maboneng, and she also contributes to WoolworthsTASTE Magazine and the South African online food guide, Eat Out.

Off the Wall will continue with its intimate setting for now, but it’s growing, and will soon have more mouths to feed.

“[I’ve] been thinking a lot about popping up in different countries, [overseas], but right now I think continentally is key. It’s important, because you’ve got to see your world first and travel the continent,” she says.

Photo by Stuart Hendricks.

Franchising tends to be the usual trajectory for a budding restaurant, but for Mzongwana, passing down knowledge is key. “To young black girls, especially,” she says. “I’m a young black girl. I know what it’s like. So much is expected of us, and at the same time so little when you start doing well.”

The notion of pop-up dining and revolving menus isn’t new to South Africa. Mzongwana isn’t exactly the first to bring the idea to the fore. Rather, Off the Wall is making the trendy aspect of dining out more approachable and accessible, particularly to young black South Africans living and working in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

“One of the things we really want to do is just make eating out accessible to young people,” she says. “We don’t want people to be awkward or overwhelmingly polite at the table - eat with your hands and engage with the food. We try and create that access in terms of ‘this is not too classy a space for you.’ Just come.”

Wilhelmina is a Kenyan-born writer based in Johannesburg, and loves writing about the continent. Follow her on Twitter @Wmaboja.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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