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Women in Charge: Meet Food Stylist and Cook Khanya Mzongwana

Hailing from the Eastern Cape and moving around the country to explore her cooking skills and expand her horizons, Khanya Mzongwana is a cook who was determined to follow her dreams. She’s run her own family restaurant, dabbled in pop-up restaurant and various business ventures, from her hometown of Gqeberha to the bustling city of Jozi.

Can you share a bit of your journey with food and how you got your start?

I have always known that cooking would be what I do with my life. At home, to avoid church, I’d relegate myself to Sunday lunch duty, which is where I taught myself how to cook for crowds, because we were a big household. In high school, we were given the opportunity to train in our respective careers. I chose food, and was placed in Gqeberha’s oldest hotel, The Beach Hotel, where my three-day training turned into a weekend job. I studied Professional Cookery and Culinary Arts at Damelin.

In 2012, my mom and I opened a restaurant with zero capital. We called it The Aztec Kitchen. It started out as a tiny kitchen with a courtyard, and turned into this influential space in GQ - a cultural hub that brought together artists, musicians and food enthusiasts. Then I moved to JHB where I briefly worked at a coffee shop and catering company before I started a pop-up restaurant called Off The Wall, where I would cook food from different regions across the world once a month.

Currently, I’m the deputy food editor at TASTE and I write, cook and do video work. It’s a lot, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

You’ve recently won an award for your food styling - what was that moment like for you?

That was a special moment for me and my career. It felt important to be honoured for doing a thing that comes so naturally to me.

Is there any advice you’ve been given throughout your journey that stuck with you?

Believe your intuition always, it’ll never lead you astray. I’ve applied this to every aspect of my life - there’s so much spontaneity required of a stylist, it’s important to trust yourself and believe in the ideas that pop into your brain and seem crazy at first. A good photographer will nurture and encourage that intuitive way of working.

Who is inspiring you in the food space right now, both local and internationally?

Oh wow, so many people. Onezwa Mbola, Vusi Ndlovu, Strone Henry, Mmabatho Molefe, Lipato Shogole, Zandile Finxa, Zola Nene, Mokgadi Itsweng, Karen Dudley, just to mention a few!

What is on the horizon for you and future projects?

Oh, that would be telling! You’ll see.

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