Why are we only learning to cook French food in Africa?

It's easier to find African restaurants in New York City than it is in Cape Town, and culinary schools on the continent aren't helping.

Image credit Andrea Moroni via Flickr (CC).

If you are pursuing a career as a chef in South Africa, you should know French cuisine. If you attend culinary school in South Africa to work in a high end restaurant, that’s what you’ll be trained in, you don’t really have a choice in the matter. And as a chef in South Africa, and all over the world, your value will be measured in how well you can cook French recipes and use French techniques.

Although French cuisine dominates everywhere, even other European countries, it’s a bitter pill to swallow when combined with the legacy of colonialism. If, for centuries, Africans have been seen as less than human, then of course our food has been looked down on too. So, while colonizers appropriated local foods, they also simultaneously attacked local food traditions.

Although African food (acknowledging the vastness of Africa and diversity of its cuisines) might be starting to have a (small) international moment, with award winning chefs like Kwame Onwuachi in the US and Zoe Adjonyoh in the UK bringing West African cuisine to mainstream dining in those countries, it has not been celebrated as much as other foods. Around the world, European food is still largely perceived as the superior cuisine. It wins more awards, is considered the default cuisine for celebratory dining, and comes at a higher price than most cuisines from the Global South.

Culinary schools all over the world take a standardized approach to training young chefs, and this is the way that cooking is taught and graded universally. In South Africa, in order to progress in a professional kitchen, all young chefs have to take the City & Guilds exam, a UK-based food training curriculum that is globally recognized. Culinary schools all over the country teach to accommodate the requirements of the City & Guilds qualification. This means one to three years of French cuisine, and it might include a week or a month per year of local cuisines. This short period spent on local cuisine is extremely limiting, especially when young chefs aren’t able to express themselves according to their own contexts and food heritage. As institutions of education are witnessing a new wave of “decolonizing” the curriculum, culinary schools continue to teach European norms of cooking in Africa. Wouldn’t it make more sense if it was flipped and the curriculum was African techniques and recipes with a week called “European cuisines?”

I visited New York earlier this year and found it easier to find African food restaurants there than in Cape Town, where I live. In South Africa, people across cultures have the fondest appreciation for their grandmother’s traditional cooking, which (especially in rural areas) is often organic, sustainable and consists of whole foods—all very popular right now in the wellness movement. Yet, most of the plentiful successful city restaurants do not reflect pride in these traditional foods. Whilst one might find more traditional foods in township eateries, it is not easy to find African food when dining in the central food hotspots in most cities in South Africa. This begs the question of which food is seen as acceptable for the urban public.

There has been a call from South African chefs, as well as a collective called South African POC at the Table, to challenge bias against African foods and black chefs. There are also of course chefs who are going against the grain and running African food restaurants. Notable names include: Chef Coco’s Epicure in Johannesburg, and Abigail Mbalo of 4Roomed Ekasi Culture, and Nolu Dube-Cele of Seven Colors Eatery (the rest in Cape Town). They, among others, have made it a point to celebrate African foods, but they are still very much exceptions in the industry.

Chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu has written extensively about embracing African foods in her cookbook, Through the Eyes of an African Chef, writing about the lack of authentic South African cuisine in restaurants, whilst also questioning why our culinary schools still teach only French cuisineIn an interview by Yolisa Qunta, South African food legend Cass Abrahams encourages the younger generation to stand up and embrace their food heritage:

Not that it will be easy, even in the so-called free South Africa, because there are still very real barriers to entry. As a young person, formal training will never give you the opportunity to cook your own traditional food. I believe that is done deliberately to keep us in our place.

Things start to become extra frustrating when certain traditional foods and medicines, which have been used to justify the “backwardness” of Africans, become trendy due to “newly discovered” health benefits. The likes of sorghum, buchu or baobab are being hailed as the new superfoods, causing their prices to soar, while none of those profits come back to the communities whose culture has provided the know-how for cultivation.

That is currently what we are seeing with insects, which are commonly eaten all over central and southern Africa. Things like mopane salt and crickets are making their way onto the shelves of health food shops. Even world-renowned chef, Rene Redzepi is serving them in Noma, the world’s top restaurant. And recently, South Africa’s first all-insect restaurant opened in Cape Town. “The store is about introducing South Africans to the concept of eating insects” said co-founder Jean Laurens. One has to ask Laurens which South Africans he means, because the majority don’t need an introduction.

Challenging the status quo is going to be near impossible if even in African countries, culinary schools do not participate in a decolonial curriculum. This relates to both the curriculum and the exorbitant fees for attendance. African chefs are not trained in local culinary traditions, but are able to produce the five “mother sauces” or tell you the different knife cuts like batonett, paysanne and brunoise. But when African chefs are asked to represent their country internationally, nobody wants to see that they can cook French cuisine. It all doesn’t make sense. Something has to change.

Further Reading