In this extract from Made With Love - Recipes and Memories from Nelson Mandela’s Personal Chef, author chef Xoliswa Ndoyiya shares her story about food and working for former president Nelson Mandela.
My love of food began early on, as a young woman growing up in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. As the eldest daughter, it was my responsibility to prepare meals while my mother worked. I learned the basics of cooking and became curious about experimenting with food and creating recipes of my own. My grandmother would also bring us delicious home-cooked meals, and I think these experiences helped me discover the powerful connection between food, love and comfort.
I was working as a chef at an aged-care facility after I had moved to Johannesburg in my twenties, when my life changed overnight. It was 1992 and a friend of mine arranged for a job interview for me to “cook for an icon”. I wasn’t looking for a job at the time, but I passed the interview and was offered the role. So I said yes, and was taken to meet Tata Madiba (Tata is the isiXhosa word for ‘father’, Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name). He smiled, invited me to sit, and then asked me what my clan name was. “Mamqadai”, I said. He said: “I believe you are a great cook, but do you think you can cook our own [isiXhosa] food?” Without hesitation, I said “Yes, Tata.” I had the job.
At first it was only me and one other staff member that lived in the house with Tata – the other household staff would come and go during the day. Our days began early, with Tata taking his first cup of coffee at 3.30 a.m. I would bring it to his door, where he would greet me warmly, then have me follow him out to the garden for his morning exercise. Breakfast was prepared by 6.30 a.m., and was the same every day – fresh fruit, porridge with nuts and raisins and sometimes bacon, eggs, green salad and a slice of home-baked bread toast with marmalade. I quickly learned that Tata liked consistency and punctuality! And yet one morning, after eighteen years, he decided he would have Frosties with his grandchildren instead of porridge. Tata never ate sugar, chocolates or sweets, until that day. The next morning, he wanted Frosties again. When I asked him why, he told me he had only eaten porridge all those years to honour his mother, who made it for him when he was growing up. Now he felt ready to eat whatever he wanted, and at that moment it meant sharing a common food with his grandchildren. The same thing happened when Tata saw his grandchildren and Mama Graça [Machel] enjoying double-toffee ice cream. He asked for a taste only, and then there he was asking for double-toffee ice cream for dessert again and again. For him, family and food went hand-in-hand.
For twenty-two years I had the privilege of being Tata’s personal chef, and I cooked many meals for Tata, his colleagues, his friends and his family. His grandchildren stayed often, and my live-in colleague and I spent so much time looking after them that they took to calling us “Mama”. Tata also had a habit of inviting other children to the house, feeding them and asking them about their schoolwork – he would read about them in the paper or somehow hear about them, and next thing there they were, sitting at the table. He simply loved children and wanted to look after them all.
It was Tata’s nature to be warm and hospitable to all, and by default my mission was to welcome people visiting the house with comforting, home-cooked dishes. And Tata, in his generous nature, never failed to acknowledge my efforts. One evening when I was serving food to a group of visiting dignitaries, he called me over to the table and said: “Xoli, you know me, I don’t take credit for anybody. These people keep saying thank you to me. I didn’t go to the kitchen to cook for them, so they must say thank you to you.” That was Tata’s way of telling us, “When you respect people, they will respect you back”. And that was the Tata I grew to know: always generous, always compassionate and always perceptive. Tata used to look me straight in the eye and say: “Xoli, when I ask people to come to the house, please do exactly what you do every day, don’t stop doing it. You fill up my table with a smile and you’re giving us food made with love.”
So Made With Love isn’t just another cookbook; it is a thank you to Tata, a way of passing the baton so that we can all share the things he valued most, with the ones we love. Because at his table you wouldn’t see just one person – a Black person, a white person – you’d see all people coming together, sharing together and giving to others through food made with love.
– Xoliswa Ndoyiya
Credit: Made With Love: Recipes and Memories from Nelson Mandela’s Personal Chef. Photography by Cameron Gibb. Published by Blackwell&Ruth. Distributed by Bookstorm. Available in all good bookstores. Recommended Retail Price. R420.
Asparagus & Melon with Avocado
500 g asparagus, washed and any tough ends removed
120 g baby spinach leaves
1 medium-sized ripe avocado, halved then sliced thinly lengthwise
½ melon of choice, cut into 2-cm chunks or scooped into balls
3 radishes, thinly sliced
citrus dressing (see recipe page 146)
3 tbsp crumbled feta (goat’s cheese)
microgreens, to garnish (optional)
1 tsp black pepper
½ tsp salt
Blanch the asparagus by plunging it into boiling water for 3–4 minutes, then cooling in cold water for 2 minutes.
Arrange the spinach on a serving platter or plate, then decoratively arrange the asparagus, avocado, melon and radish.
Drizzle the citrus dressing over salad. Top with the crumbled feta and microgreens, if using, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
“Tata loved fruit and he also loved vegetables so one day I decided to experiment to see if he would like the two combined together in one dish. Happily it passed the test and became a regular on the menu.”