Why SA Food Pics Are Great Part I

Friday, May 26th, 2017
Image by Khanya Mzongwana

I spend a lot of time looking at pictures of food from all over the globe. Far too much time, really. But even with all the global food gawking that I do, I have to say that I think South African food styling and photography is some of the best in the world. When you think about it, this is a tiny country compared to the giant US, much smaller UK and little but mighty Australia (at least in the English-speaking foodie ranks) and many other non-English speaking countries which produce fantastic food pics. Yet, we do things differently here, in keeping with this place, this… “terroir” – ok, that’s a stretch, but you get what I mean. There’s something special about the work produced here.

It’s not just me who thinks so. For years, whenever I brought SA food mags back with me to the US, people would marvel at how beautiful they were. And unique.

I think there are many contributing factors. The diverse and beautiful natural setting and light. The outdoor lifestyle, which lends itself to all kinds of interesting cooking. The cultural diversity. The traditions. The new emerging pride in South African food. The immense creativity that is here. And, of course the raw ingredients, which are getting better all the time.

I thought it would be fun to feature some local talent. These are not endorsements; these are just people whose work I love. There are many talented people in the business here, but I’ve chosen to highlight two who to me, stand out. Both have worked as chefs, and that’s where the similarities end.

Image by Claire Gunn

Claire Gunn is a widely-respected Cape Town-based photographer who takes pictures of food, restaurants and sustainable producers, amongst other subjects. As if that wasn’t enough, she also paints beautifully. Claire has photographed just about every great restaurant in Cape Town, but is equally happy in the middle of an organic rooibos field.

Khanya Mzongwana is a Johannesburg-based stylist and photographer, who focuses largely (but certainly not exclusively) on traditional foods and ingredients. On Instagram, she is @yuluishii:  “the Yulu part is completely made up and the Ishii part is a Kill Bill reference to Lucy Liu’s movie character Oren Ishii.” Both Claire and Khanya have worked as chefs, and are informed by their heritage and a passion for food.

I asked them each a few questions about food in South Africa and themselves. Here are their answers and a few of their beautiful images…and because I have so many wonderful pics and words to share, I’m making this a two-part post. The next one will follow in a couple of weeks.

PS…I also hope this will give non-South African readers a sense of how fantastic the food is here and the talent of the producers and imagemakers.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your background?


Claire: I grew up in Durbanville, Cape Town. I left for the UK when I was 19 to become a chef. With no formal training, I had to start as a potwash and quickly work my way up in the kitchen. Back then I worked in other kitchens or other departments of the hotel on my off days to gain experience. I’ve worked in all sections of the kitchen as well as housekeeping, reception, management and events. I returned to Cape Town in 2003 where I worked in various restaurants and large and boutique hotels, mostly in pastry or in health and wellness. I also formed part of the food team for Wellness Warehouse when organic and gluten free was but a whisper on our lips. The highlight of my career was working at Le Quartier Francais with Margot Janse and Chris Erasmus.

I spent the last official year of cheffing at Arabella and here I ended up with a basic point and shoot camera taking silly shots of whatever we were doing in the kitchen like huge chocolate displays and buffets for Christmas and conferencing. I found that I was more interested in photographing the chefs and their preparation than I was in sending the food out. Then I decided I wanted more freedom in my personal life and went into private cheffing part time while I decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I decided on ‘travel photographer’. So I set about learning how to photograph by doing shoots for my friends and their kiddies’ parties. Fast forward two years and I was well into shooting weddings, events, portraiture, fashion and products. I then started doing elaborate photo compositing, dancer portraiture and had a year of fine art photography exhibitions. Then fatefully, a chef friend asked me to photograph their food. I turned it down for some reason and the next day another chef friend asked me to do precisely the same thing. I took it as a sign and launched myself into the world of food and hospitality photography.


Khanya: I grew up in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. I got into food in high school. I was 16 when I took a job at The Beach Hotel. I was in charge of the salad weekend buffet. Lol. When I left I went through a lot of other food establishments, no two places alike at all! I came to Joburg in 2013 to start anew after the failure of my restaurant The Aztec Kitchen, and started my company, Off The Wall. I always worked in restaurants and despite the other vocational options I had, food was the thing that really stuck with me. I got into styling after a really long time of practicing at home and styling the meals I cook myself. I posted on Instagram regularly until it sort of became a real thing and Woolworths TASTE Magazine hit me up about becoming a contributor. I take many pictures of food, but mostly in the name of social media. I’d love to be able to take my own photos for shoots to capture all the beauty I see the way I see it.

Q: As someone who loves to play with, cook and photograph food, what excites you most about SA food as your subject?

Khanya:  South Africa has an enormous variety of ingredients to explore and taste and we have incredible quality meat, fish and grains. What excites me the most is cooking foods for people who’ve never had the opportunity to taste, and they end up loving whatever I’m feeding them.

Claire: The variety of creativity right now. SO many chefs, so many dishes available to anyone willing to explore what we have to offer.

Samp with grilled baby greens. Image by Khanya Mzongwana
Image by Claire Gunn

Q: What do you think is distinctive/characteristic about South African food?

Claire: Traditional food? Comfort and no frills. What we call current SA cuisine? Fusion. Right now it’s also very exploratory. SA chefs draw from all types of foods and throw them together courageously in their own way. And the South African foodie patron loves a new thing. I find we are quick to try weird combinations and far-out concepts. We adapt and absorb international happenings but make it our own.

Khanya: Big, bold, clean flavours! SA is so varied in the way we cook that it’s hard to pinpoint just one thing about it that is amazing. Sourness (my fav flav) is a common taste in South African food that I would love to explore more in my everyday cooking by way of fermentation (pap, ting), also, colour is a big deal in South African cooking, there’s a common celebratory theme that runs through every South African plate regardless of culture, tribe or palate. Meat is a biggy as well, not really for me but for many South Africans. We need to treat meat a bit more special, I think.

Image by Claire Gunn
Image by Khanya Mzongwana

Q: What are a few things about the South African landscape, history and population that inform your work?

Khanya: I’m inspired by traditional SA street food and the cost effective ways cooks have found to get good, simple, satisfying and (most importantly) affordable food to thousands of people moving through the city. I’m inspired by how different we all are but how we all have the enjoyment of good food in common, I’m obsessed with that fact. I love the influence added to South African food by people of other African cultures and how we’ve managed to learn new flavours without fear.

Claire: The landscape – specifically the scratchy scrub in pale goldens that appear at the end of summer and after harvesting. The land of fences we are called, and I love them for their cheery waving at me as I ride to work through the hills of Durbanville.

Durbanville Farm Roads, painting by Claire Gunn

Our population awareness has made me question what I choose to photograph. I service the technically opulent leisure industry that delights in the latest ingredients carved or broiled to perfection by the country’s top chefs. This might represent less than 10% of our country’s way of spending their time and money. It is no secret we have severe poverty and inequality amongst the population and I find it hard to swim along happily in my world of leisure when I know what else exists. I explored charitable efforts mostly in feeding programs to feel like I was contributing somehow to changing it, but in the end it made little difference as a whole although a few individuals were assisted temporarily. I decided to combine what I already do – food – with promoting better environmental practices. I did this by choosing  projects that are linked in anyway to the progressiveness of greening our way of life.  (more on that in the next post).

Umphokoqo with seeds and fynbos honey, image by Khanya Mzongwana
Image by Claire Gunn

Look for Part II of this post soon. In the meantime, you can check out more images from these brilliant gals here:

Claire Gunn:  http: //www.clairegunn.com/ Instagram @clairegunnphoto

Khanya Mzangwana: Instagram @yuluishii

Main photograph: image by Claire Gunn

Written by Ilana Sharlin Stone

I'm a food writer, blogger and former chef who found her umami in Cape Town, South Africa.

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