After studying at Durban University of Technology in South Africa, Nokuthula Mbambo (Nokx), decided to pursue a more creative path. Her first culinary role at Durban’s 4-star Riverside Hotel was followed by a move to London in 2002. Positions and promotions at The Intercontinental Park Lane, The Landmark and Brown’s eventually lead to Rosewood London in May 2014, where she currently works as Sous Chef.
Over the past 5 years, Nokx has developed her pastry making skills under the guidance of Holborn Dining Room’s Executive Chef Calum Franklin, and now oversees the restaurant’s Pie Room. As well as being passionate about pastry, Nokx works closely with Women in Hospitality, an organisation that fosters the career development of female chefs. I sat down with Nokx in the majestic Pie Room to talk about female chefs, the importance of mentors, pastry dilemmas and racism.
You were inspired to cook by your father. Can you describe his dishes and what made them so special?
My father was always in the kitchen. One of the best dishes he used to make was an incredible vegetable stew out of the green papaya, green tomatoes and mint from the garden. l’d watch him during the preparation and couldn’t imagine eating it because I didn’t think the flavours would work. I always doubted the combinations, but they were always so well balanced and delicious.
He had a vegetable garden with seasonal produce; the only thing we bought was meat. This inspired me to make something out of nothing. I do it all the time now, especially after a day in the kitchen. There’s more structure at work, but Chef Calum encourages us to create dishes from home using British produce and with a British theme.
In an interview for CODE, you said, “As female chefs, we want to be recognised in the industry, but first we need to recognise each other and be role models to young female chefs.” Which female chefs did you admire when you started out and what did they represent for you?
When I arrived in London, l didn’t see any female chefs at first. Jamie Oliver blew me away because his approach was totally different, then when I saw Angela Hartnett in Hell’s Kitchen, I thought, “This woman can do it, she’s pushing the boys!” Now there’s Clare [Smyth], Asma Khan and so on, so we have more women to look up to.
Ravneet [Gill] is another great example. She approached me out of the blue; I had no idea that she even knew who I was. She’s finding everyone behind the scenes and championing them. We need to lift each other up like this. I’m always wondering how I can do better, not just at our restaurant, but how I can help other young chefs. Before, female chefs would do their own thing and focus on making a name forthemselves, but now they’re saying, “We can do this together.”
At a recent Countertalk event, you spoke warmly about Chef Calum. What differentiates his kitchen from the others you have worked in?
I feel he cares more about his team. In other places, you won’t always have a mentor who you can talk to and who’s willing to listen; they just want you to do your job and go home. But with Chef, he’ll notice when something’s wrong and we’ll talk about it.
Most chefs like to work alone, but he enjoys training his team, especially the seniors, and creating opportunities for development. For example, only the head chef or sous chef generally review the menus, but we can all contribute [at HDR].
He wants to nurture his team so that they continuously improve, and he takes time to train us properly. I remember the first time he showed me how to make pâté en croûte: I’ll never forget how carefully he did it. He shows you and then you try it yourself, and this is how I carry out my training.
He has so much respect for his team. One thing I really like that is every morning, he’ll come in and give everyone on the floor, in the Pie room and in the kitchen a hug or a pleasant greeting; it’s a great way to start the day.
He just wants us to be the best we can be. Another example: I wasn’t really an IT expert when I started. One day, he asked me to do something and I got frustrated because I didn’t know how to do it. Two weeks later, he sent me on a course to improve my skills. He saw something in me that I hadn’t seen, and now I train the chefs on how to use our system.
What was the biggest lesson that you learned from the children’s masterclass in the Pie Room in August?
There were three kids [aged 6, 8 and 5] and it was amazing to see how they interacted with one another. One thing I noticed is that when they tell stories, they’re always the heroes.
They also observe the little things that we take for some granted sometimes. There are plenty of questions, like, “Why did you get this mould?”, “What’s inside that box?”, “Why do you keep this here?”, which is fun.
Unlike adults, they’re only competing against themselves, not each other. I felt more relaxed when I was teaching them, so I got into their zone; we had an amazing class.
Them displaying their final work is the loveliest moment for me, especially when they say, “My mum/dad/guardian will be so proud of me; I want to take this for her.” It’s so sweet.
Greggs’ vegan sausage roll has been a huge success since it launched on 3rd January. As an expert pie maker, what’s your opinion on this product and have you tried it?
I’ve seen it, but I haven’t tried it. I think it’s a good idea because we’re here to satisfy the customers. A lot of vegans dine with us and I’ve been thinking about creating more vegan dishes. It’s nice to have options, and change is good sometimes. Not everyone reacts positively to change, but I think it’s fantastic; I want to challenge myself. I also want to cater everyone, where possible.
What are the most common mistakes that people make when it comes to homemade pastry and how can they improve?
The most common complaint is about soggy pastry, especially in a Beef Wellington. It comes down to the mix, so if there’s too much liquid, e.g. if your spinach or mushrooms aren’t dry enough, the moisture will seep into your pastry.
Crumbly pastry is another problem: you need to work with cold water as it binds better. The solution is to add more water. When you’re making pastry, you must be very accurate; it’s not like a stew, where you can wing it a bit.
Have you experienced racism in the kitchen and if so, how did you overcome it?
Yes, but it didn’t sink in until later. You’re so busy during the day that it’s only when you go home that you think, “Did he really say that to me?” When I started working in London kitchens, I was the only woman, and a South African one, too.
There was one kitchen where the chefs were all German and they only spoke to me when they had a question or to give me instructions. Even though I couldn’t understand German, I had a feeling they were talking about me. The younger guys looked up to the older ones and would join in the banter, but when you spoke to them one-on-one, it was a different story; the jokes stopped and it became more real.
I told them they could judge me on my work, but not on my roots or skin colour. It’s a hard thing to deal with because people don’t understand until it happens to them.
There was a guy who kept calling me racist names and they fired him in the end. I was sad that he lost his job, but he was the ringleader and with him gone, I was happier at work.
In your opinion, what’s the closest thing to real magic?
I was trying to make pâté en croute, but there was a problem with the pastry, so it rose like bread. I was really upset because it takes so long to make. I didn’t want to throw it away, so I removed the pastry and turned it into another dish. This is magic for me: I messed up, but it became something good. The trick is remembering what went wrong in order to replicate it. In fact, it’s going on the menu soon.
The Pie Room is also magical for me; it doesn’t seem real. Since I’ve been in charge, it feels like entering my own palace. No matter what happens outside, I feel better as soon as I walk in, like being sprinkled with Disney fairy dust!
It was very challenging at first because people would take photos without asking and leave, then we’d see them on social media and there’d be rolls of blue paper and sprays in the background, which wasn’t ideal. But we’re used to it now.
As for photos in the dining room, I don’t want to look at them because the pies will be facing the wrong way or have shifted across the plate, or the mango salsa [around the curried mutton pie] is all over the place. It upsets me as we put so much effort in the dish. But ultimately, it’s a good thing because it allows us to learn from our mistakes and improve our standards.
What’s your most valuable possession, how did you acquire it and why does it mean so much to you?
There are two things. The first is my wedding ring, which is always with me, although I don’t wear it when I’m in the kitchen. My husband and I went to the jeweller together: I asked him to pick one and I went off and did the same and we ended up choosing the same one.
The second one is a Japanese knife that Chef Calum gave me. I thought I’d never be able to afford one, and it means even more because it was a 40th birthday gift. I’m too scared to use it, though, and it’s still in the original box – it’s too precious!
If you could speak to everyone in the world at the same time, what would you say and why?
That we need to believe in ourselves because no-one can do that for you. I didn’t believe in myself until Chef Calum said, “No matter how hard you work, but if you don’t believe in yourself, no-one else will. You’re doing an amazing job, so just believe that.” After that, I started to progress and do things that I was previously afraid of doing. Your mentors will push you to your limits, but that’s when you need to pick yourself up and keep going.
If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet and why?
The one person I wish I could’ve met was Nelson Mandela: he brought peace, change and equality to South Africa. I’m so grateful to him because I’m where I am thanks to him. I never thought that I’d get the opportunity to travel the world and experience this freedom. I would’ve thanked him from the bottom of my heart.
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