I love South African food photography and styling. There’s so much quality work being done in this country. It’s fresh and colourful, mixing tradition with modernity. Another thing I think we’ve got going on here — almost impossibly — is that rustic and sophisticated are not necessarily polar opposites. This runs through the food chain, meaning from chefs to food stylists, photographers and bloggers. I think it’s a reflection of the South African lifestyle, which is more casual and outdoorsy, compared to countries in the Northern Hemisphere.
In other words, it’s possible to make something simple and homey look beautiful and special. South Africa does this very well.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about this, featuring two creative food photographer/stylists I admire immensely: Claire Gunn (Cape Town) and Khanya Mzongwana (Johannesburg). You can read the post here.
This is Part II, with some more Q&A’s with Claire and Khanya, that zero in on their personal styles, interests and favourite foods.
Q to Khanya: I know that traditional foods are of interest to you. How do you like to highlight them in your work?
A: In small ways, I suppose. I still eat a lot of the same foods I grew up eating. I like to find new ways to enjoy them without spoiling the simple flavours and getting all cheffy about it.
Q to Khanya: How do you transform traditional foods into something contemporary and cool?
A: By being a little adventurous and also respecting the dish you’re trying to tune up, by adding things that make sense, for instance, a traditional Xhosa dish like umvubu/umphokoqo, which is amasi [fermented milk] mixed with pap [white cornmeal porridge]. It can be switched up with some fresh fruit, nuts, seeds and honey or enjoyed with grilled meat as a side with salad/relish/veggies.
Q to Khanya: Are you finding that there is an interest amongst other younger South Africans in rediscovering traditional foods?
A: Sort of. There’s so much work to be done in gaining the youth’s interest in food, to be honest. We lead these fast lives where we barely get any time to cook and often opt for easy solutions like Mickey Dees [McDonalds]. I’m guilty of this, too.
Q to Claire: I know that sustainability is very important to you. How do you like to highlight this in your work?
A: I like to choose projects that are linked in some way to the progressiveness of greening our way of life. The Oranjezicht City Farm and Market is the most obvious, because [founder] Sheryl Ozinsky does so much with so many people, for so many people, to work towards food security. This goes beyond environmental sustainability and into community development and the impact of reduction of packaging. I’ve also worked with Stream Straws, Lady Bonin’s Tea Parlour and restaurants with ties to sustainable suppliers, that have a healthier focus on their menus and follow SASSI (South African Seafood Sustainability Initiative) guidelines, hotels with greening programs and companies with community development and environmental priorities.
Q to Claire: What do you believe the biggest issues of sustainability are in South Africa?
A: The perception of value in it. If people do not see how important it is, they will not make the proper effort. Beyond that it is access, education, availability and money.
Q to Claire: You were once a chef. How has that influenced you as a photographer?
A: I believe it has been the most valuable set of skills for my food photography. It has been immeasurably useful. I understand the life cycle of a dish and so, know its composition, timing, needed shine, connection to its environment, etc. It has helped beyond explanation. I highly recommend it to every aspiring food photographer.
Q: What about yourself gets communicated through your food photography?
Khanya: My love for colour and detail and realness and fantasy.
Claire: My love for behind-the-scenes often fascinates me more than the result. There is an entire theatre of events happening in kitchens; they are so familiar to me and I love them. But the patrons don’t see it. They don’t know that their food is being prepared by young, tattooed misfits and sweaty Jack Sparrows. Cuts, burns, deliveries, smoke breaks, days of prep for one dish, spinning during service, casual discipline and chefs’ clothes that smell like steaming oil forever no matter how many times you bleach them. A chef life is known only by chefs, so I love to photograph it and share the life we lead.
Q: Most thrilling South African food experience you’ve had?
Claire: One that can never be repeated. The last supper of Margot Janse at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais. An honour in itself to be at this last gathering of past staff members of this special and ground-breaking restaurant led by a legend of South African cuisine. The food was mind-blowing, so creative and clever, sublime, surprising and oozing with culinary genius.
Khanya: Hands down, Convivium 2016, an incredible event hosted by Hannerie Visser at Kalmoesfontein at the A.A Badenhorst family estate. The food was A LOT and absolutely beautiful, and cooked by all my SA food heroes. I was in a food slump and the new ingredients and flavour ideas were astounding and brought me right back to an inspired space. The wine was incredible too!
Q: What foods would you tell a visitor to SA they must try?
Khanya: Okay well first you need to order a sphatlo [sandwich of hollowed out 1/4 loaf of bread – can be filled with chips, polony and/or egg and atchar] with EVERYTHING on it, the tripe and grilled mielies sold on every roadside in the CBD, umvubu which I mentioned earlier, and also, Bismillah in Melville (JHB) is a bucket list food experience! If you’re trying to have a fancy experience, Cube Tasting Room in Maboneng Precinct (JHB) is the best food I’ve had in a while.
Claire: Milk tart, souskluitjies [cinnamon dumplings], and anyone’s mom’s pampoentert [pumpkin tart].
Q: Your favourite family dish?
Claire: Kaapsedraai apple tart and whipped cream
Khanya: Everyone who knows me knows, umngqusho (samp and beans).
Q: Your personal comfort food?
Khanya: Amagwinya [fried dough] and hot chocolate.
And, do yourself a favour and have a look at Claire’s beautiful website.
Featured photograph: Image by Khanya Mzongwana