Mthatha-born Wandile Mabija is a 24-year-old graduate from the Port Elizabeth campus of Capsicum Culinary Studio. Just over six months after graduating in June last year as a chef, he was recruited to start cooking by The Fairmont Austin Hotel in Austin, Texas. Needless to say, Mabija is on top of the world, working as a chef at the 37-storey Fairmont Hotel, which is the largest and second tallest hotel in the state.
So how did a young man from the Eastern Cape end up in one of the plushest hotels in the Texas state capital?
After I graduated with a Diploma in Cooking and Food Preparation from Capsicum, I applied at a travelling agency called OVC and they helped me get the job and made sure everything was done to perfection, from visa applications to accommodation.
It was tough to leave my family behind – I have two siblings – Thando and Siphesihle – who both live in Mthatha, and both studying in Port Elizabeth, as well as my dad Mxolisi and my mother Lindelwaa . But it was an opportunity to good to pass up.
How has the whole experience been so far?
When I first arrived in Austin, it was a bit challenging since I knew nothing about the place and how to go around. I had to learn which bus to take to get to work. I had to also search for places to buy good food for my flat. To be honest it was an exciting yet challenging experience. It was my first time out of South Africa, so this trip was everything I dreamt of.
So where did Mabija’s love of cooking come from?
Cooking has always been my first passion. It was something I really loved and wanted to be involved with in some way. My mother really pushed me and supported me to follow my culinary calling. I decided to go to one of the Open Days at the Capsicum Port Elizabeth campus and I fell in love with the school. That’s where my journey began.
What is your favourite wine and dish pairing?
I love steak a lot. For me my wine and dish paring, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon.
What would you consider as the best dish you have ever prepared so far?
So far, the Squid Rigatoni. It is Squid Ink Pasta with octopus.
What is your advice to someone wants to become a top chef?
If you love cooking and you don’t feel like you working when you cooking, then go for it. Also remember that being a chef is not as easy as they make it out to be on television. If you want to become a chef you have work hard and be ready to compromise.
What is funniest moment you have experienced as a chef?
This happened while I was still an intern while still at school in Port Elizabeth. My chef told me to first count grains of the rice one by one before cooking it.
What would you consider as the attributes of a good chef?
Respect, staying focused, be willing to learn, keep ahead, awake and be ready to work hard; and love what you do.
Being so far away from home, do you sometimes crave for a South African meal?
Yes a lot of time. I love “amadombolo and beef stew” ( dumpling and beef stew).
And where does he see himself in five years time?
Five years from now I want to have travelled to as many countries as possible and learn as much as I can and as much as I need to, to help me reach my dream of owning my own restaurant.
So what is Mabija’s ultimate dream?
Well, apart from having my own place I also want to one day be able to give back to the people in need. Not just normal food but food that can change their lives. I want to give back much as I can.
What is your philosophy about life?
Believe in yourself and keep going.