When she was told that her cookbook idea was a bad one, Zanele van Zyl, thankfully, didn’t listen. Both of the award-winning chef’s cookbooks have since made it to the bestseller list.

Zanele van Zyl still recalls the moment when her dream of a cookbook almost went up in smoke. Armed with a bulging ring-binder packed with delicious recipes, Zanele had been visiting publishers hoping to turn her dream of publishing a cookbook into reality. It was the crucial final step, after spending time growing her brand, giving cooking lessons around the country, developing the perfect dazzling media personality and working with big brands. She was ready, but the publisher standing in front of her said that it wasn’t going to work because black people don’t read. ‘I was shocked at the response I got.

Some publishers wanted to know who I was and asked who would buy my book. One said, “Maybe let’s try after five years,”’ the KwaZulu-Natal-born chef recalls. The veto made her even more determined and steadfast in her resolve. It was the right push she needed. ‘I wanted to show them that I can do it.’ And she did just that by self-publishing her first book, Cooking with Zanele: Simple delicious quick meals.

The cookbook was very well received, making it to the bestseller list. Publishing houses came knocking. But Zanele had come too far and she refused their offers. After all, she owned her work. The first book’s success paved the way for the even more successful Cooking with Zanele Volume 2: Find joy in cooking, which went on sale two years later. ‘It won an award,’ says Zanele. It’s been a very exciting journey. Cooking is a piece of my heart,’ she adds.

‘My mother is evolving,’ interjects Zanele’s eldest daughter, Thando. ‘She’s a champion; there is literally nothing she sets her mind to that she doesn’t get. She is a go-getter.

Zanele’s culinary journey started in 2012. The 42-year-old former IT technician was on maternity leave when she discovered her love for cooking. ‘I had plenty of time on my hands, and became inspired. I just wanted to try new recipes,’ she recalls.

Zanele and her husband decided that she would return to work when their youngest daughter, Zandi (10), was five. However, she changed course. Culinary school it was! And that was a step in the right direction. The Facebook and Instagram pages she created to share her mouthwatering recipes were a hit. ‘People started asking if I could teach them how to make such food because they were exciting dishes.’

The food is relatable, beautiful and tasty, says one of her fans. I can attest to that because I tried my hand at her pan-fried kingklip the night before our shoot. It was surprisingly easy and quick to make with simple ingredients I already had at home. So, of course, I share this with her as she does her make-up in-between outfit changes. A fact she acknowledges even before I ask. ‘That’s the point of the book,’ she explains. ‘I have made every effort to make the recipes fuss-free.’

Big brands noticed her social media efforts, which birthed her nationwide cooking classes and, subsequently, the recipe books.

However, Zanele insists most of the credit goes to her husband, whom she married in 2010. ‘I guess the real shocking part was that my husband was a better cook than me, and my competitiveness couldn’t let it rest. So, I started down an unexpected but very fulfilling path,’ she notes in her book’s acknowledgements. ‘He can be addressed as “my husband”,’ she laughs when asked about him. He is very private and prefers to be kept out of the media. Nevertheless, he is her home away from the hustle and bustle of fame. ‘My husband supported my studies and has continued to help me throughout my career,’ adds Zanele.

After our full-day shoot, Zanele, still energetic, is off to catch a flight to Cape Town, where she has more shoots. We ask how she balances life as a wife and mom of two. ‘I’m very consistent when I am home. I give my all. It is just natural. I make sure the kids and my husband are taken care of. I am interested in knowing how their day was. So, they don’t feel neglected. It all works out,’ adds Zanele, who is based in Gqeberha. ‘All things work together for good. Romans 8:28,’ says Thando in agreement with her mom. She is quoting her mother’s favourite Bible verse.

‘She stands by the verse all the time. Everything that happens, good or bad, always works out for good, and I see it happening. I see it in my life; I see it with her.’

Once the actress and student, 21, takes her place next to her mother at the shoot, the team watches in awe. Her features tend to attract attention.

Thando has completed her undergraduate studies and recently moved to Joburg to pursue her postgrad in Innovation at AFDA. ‘I decided to venture into innovation. It’s an exciting programme for me; I have always pictured myself in the corporate world,’ she says. However, she tells us she is interested and passionate about filmmaking. ‘The current course will broaden my horizons and enhance my creativeness, whether it be in the filmmaking industry or business,’ she adds.

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‘I miss my mom’s food,’ Thando says about being so far from home. ‘Now that she is in Joburg, she calls four to fives times a day asking what I am wearing, what I am cooking,’ laughs Zanele. It’s evident that the mother and daughter duo is close.

‘Our relationship is more than just mother and daughter. We are friends,’ says Thando. Watching them interact is beautiful, I note. ‘Thando (meaning ‘love’ in isiZulu) is so loving. They say your name follows you; she makes it so easy for me to parent her. I don’t even remember even once shouting at her,’ Zanele says. ‘I am extremely lucky to have a young mom who has become my best friend. She is cool. She is a warrior,’ Thando adds.

It’s clear they are a tight-knit family. In fact, Thando says that besides her mom’s cooking, she also misses working with her dad in his workshop and reading bedtime stories to her little sister. ‘We love each other very much, annoy one another, and we celebrate every milestone,’ says Thando. ‘Every Thursday at home, we go out. We get to chat and talk about the week’s wins, if there are any, and say cheers to them. I love them for that.’ Wise words from a young lady who was raised well. ‘Do good, and the kids will follow those steps,’ Zanele says.


INSTAGRAM: @cookingwithzanele
FACEBOOK: Cooking with Zanele

INSTAGRAM: @Thando Hadebe


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