Foodie, wine traders navigate new spaces

Chef Nti
Chef Nti
Image: Veli Nhlapo

The fascinating thing about the food and drink industry is the many creative ways entrepreneurs choose to navigate through it. Entrepreneurs like Nthabiseng Ramaboa, known as Chef Nti, and Michael Khoza and Clive Hlabathi.

Sowetan takes a closer look at their business.

A bespoke experience

"I've always loved food, I've always understood the love language behind food... I love how you can say so much with a good plate of food." Says Chef Nti.

We're in Maboneng at her establishment called Taste Kitchen with Chef Nti, it's a refurbished French colonial building and opened last year. It's an intimate space filled with largely Nelson Makamo artworks. In a corridor towards the restrooms is the chefs own glory wall.

There are framed magazine covers and opposite this there's family pictures featuring her mother, sister, younger brother and her nephew. The Soweto-born chef says she remembers cooking at the age of 13 out of love but she didn't pursue cooking until later in life.

"I'd done everything else that I loved and it didn't work out this was the last thing. I thought okay I can cook let's see. and I've never looked back since," she says.

She tells me she's recently returned from Turkey where she ate at Nusret Gökçe's (Salt Bae) restaurant. An avid traveller, Chef Nti spent a few years in Italy with her soccer player beau Raphael Chukwu That's where she got to explore some of her other loves such as fashion, before finally settling on cooking.

"I lived in Bari, Italy, for two years in my early 20s. I was there because of love. I was dating a football player. as you know footballer's wives are models and while I was in that space I started picking up tips with different fashion houses. then I got a licence to bring Bella Couture to the country."

Nti is not afraid to say that fashion proved to be too hard for her, so she gave it all up in 2013. In 2014, she packed her bags, and her dog, and flew to Los Angeles.

"I spent just under a year doing research, just to see how they package food entertainment and after that experience I came back to SA. I was in the classroom full-time, training as a chef and working."

Her restaurant Taste Kitchen only does bespoke events, no walk-ins. She did try walk-ins in the beginning but later shelved the idea to have more time to cook and be creative without worrying about customers walking in.

"I do collaboration work with brands, even before Taste Kitchen was opened I've always partnered with different brands, that want to extend usage of their brands."

She's worked with alcohol brands and the Durban July to create pairing menus.

"From there on I realised there was a niche where brands needed a professional to help partner with them when they expand usage. Now beer moved from being a guy's drink to something you can take in the kitchen."

Chef Nti founded Taste Kitchen because she felt she'd outgrown her home kitchen and needed a larger space to experiment.

"Clients come in here; we'll curate an experience for them we've done everything from beetroot to dessert launches.

"For me what makes me happy is coming here every morning and see it come alive differently because with every event it becomes a completely new space."

Curated taste

"Wine should always be a personal thing. Even when I do wine training I don't like to tell you what the winemaker says you should pick up."

Hlabathi, co-owner of Toasted Barrels, a two-year-old wine agency, they are the sole distributors and marketers of certain boutique wines.

They source the different wines from different regions in the Western Cape. Clive Hlabathi became a wine promoter without any wine knowledge just to make some extra cash. That changed later, however, due to his curiosity and passion. He got training and entered the wine world fully, 10 years later he's an expert and an entrepreneur.

Toasted Barrels owners Clive Hlabathi and Michael Khoza.
Toasted Barrels owners Clive Hlabathi and Michael Khoza.

"When we started, we said let's focus on smaller producers. we looked for wines that represented the Cape Winelands. Our whole idea is that when someone says I'm looking for a cool climate wine we know that we're going to go with our Elgin wine," he says.

"The best way to enjoy wine is to keep it personal."

Hlabathi's business partner Michael Khoza studied hotel management and worked in Mpumalanga. The two are both from Soweto and met when they studied at Parktown Boys High, Johannesburg.

"I like beautiful things, things that I can enjoy without the pretence, by pretence I mean not having to do a lot to enjoy something. Which is what the wine industry somewhat does in terms of how the culture is naturally," Khoza chips in.

Then Hlabathi regales me with a story about how he once facilitated a training where one of the attendees said she could pick up a hint of a cider. He says she wasn't wrong because the notes were that of green apple she just used her own experience.

The two are aiming to provide the best quality wines to people who have not been previously exposed to wine but are keen to learn. They stock wines made by young winemakers.

"We focus more on the quality, what we sell more is the craftsmanship rather than the varietal. What we're saying is believe and understand [winemakers] techniques in winemaking and go on the journey with [the winemaker] as they change varietals.

"It works out because it keeps people interested and excited," Hlabathi finishes.

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