Lesego Semenya – aka Les Da Chef – has just published his debut cookbook, “Dijo”. We had a chat to this renowned SA chef.

By: Unathi Twala

Born and raised in Soweto, on his debut cook book “Dijo” – Les Da Chef takes readers on a journey through the simplest yet most-loved of township dishes. The former judge on local television show Top Chef SA talks about his passion for cuisine and taking the snobbery out of cooking.

What attracted you to cooking?
My passion for food really only started when I went to Chef school. Before that I would say I enjoyed the culinary world and going to restaurants, but I honestly didn’t know that much about it. I grew up in a family of boys, but one thing my mom made sure about was that her sons were able to cook and look after themselves. Seeing my father cook wasn’t an oddity either. Cooking was a normal thing not specifically reserved for any person in the house.

How do you describe what you do for a living to people?
My usual sentence is “I play with food for a living”. The food world is actually more complicated than the everyday person realises so I try avoid getting into details about what exactly it is that I do. I prefer keeping it simple … at first.

What do you love about cooking?
The reactions it can create. I love the process of cooking, but what I love most is seeing how someone reacts when they see the creation I’ve made for them. People are visual and emotional creatures and food has the ability to transport people back in time to memories they loved.

What inspires you?
Everyday people. I grew up in Soweto and as large as the township is, it is also very close knit. Seeing people refusing to let their circumstances define who they will become is what inspires me. My goal is to eventually give back to the place I grew up in, I’m not quite sure how that will happen but the goal is what inspires me everyday.

What are your thoughts on the South African food scene and its place in international cuisine?
I always tell people that the future is African. Every other continent’s cuisines have been commercialised and are available everywhere you go. African and particularly South African cuisine has an opportunity to become the next big thing. South African Chefs are highly sort after internationally as our top chef schools give international level training and our work ethic is unmatched. I reckon in the next 5 years the world of food will be all about indigenous African flavours and styles of cooking. We African Chefs should be the ones who unlock this and spread the word.

Why did you decide to write a book and how long did you take to get here?
I was approached about 5 years ago to write a book but I’ve been avoiding it for years. I didn’t want to write a typical recipe book and so chose to rather spend time building up my brand and my image in order to get the public to know who I am and what my philosophy on food is. I then used this to develop the book I have written, it is about my life story through food…and not a standard recipe book per se. The process of actually writing the book itself took about a year. The photography, editing and all the other aspects of it took a further 5 months. There is a lot of work that goes into putting a quality cook book together!

What else are you busy with right now?
I run my business, LesDaChef Culinary Solutions, we do recipe development, training, menu development, product testing, product promotions, culinary events and cakes. I’m looking to go into culinary merchandising in the next year. There are a few TV shows also in the pipeline.

What are your future plans?
The ultimate goal is to own a farm and do end-to-end food production with a restaurant on site. A range of LesDaChef utensils, products and beverages are in the pipeline. I also hope to expand my brand through Africa. There is a road trip I’ve got planned for 2019 that will begin in Soweto and finish off in Nairobi, Kenya.

Serves 5

This recipe relies on that balance. I call it “Mozambique style” because of how our Mozambican neighbours love seafood and catch it fresh out of the water and prepare it on an open flame

Prawns and shellfish are lovely on an open flame due to the flavours their shells give off when grilled. You don’t quite get the same flavours when grilling them in the kitchen. Trust me, I’ve tried. The soft, white flesh also absorbs the smokiness of the flames so well. Use wood for your fire, and if you can’t then second best is to grab a bag of wood chips from the braai section of the hardware store. I like apple wood and oak but any commercially sold wood will do. It will add flavour.

Grill the prawns when the flame is at medium. Too hot a fire and the prawns will burn, too low a heat and they’ll stay a nasty light pink colour. I skewer them to keep them elongated instead of curling over and drying out on the fire.

250 g melted butter
6 medium-sized red chillies,
chopped really fine
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
2 t sea salt (don’t use table salt,
it’s too harsh)
a pinch ground white pepper
a handful of chopped chives
2 T lemon juice
1 t smoked Spanish paprika
15 medium (prince) prawns
(preferably tiger prawns)

Cooking instruction
Place all the ingredients apart from the prawns in a bowl, and mix well. Defrost the prawns overnight in the fridge or in cold water. If the prawns are not de-veined and pre-cleaned then please do so. (De- veining a prawn is really important. It involves cutting a thin line along the back of a prawn from just behind its head to the tail. Pull that black vein out. Stick your pinkie finger inside the head under running water to remove the innards of the prawn.)

Rinse thoroughly. (You want the shell and head to remain intact though!).
Stick a bamboo skewer through the prawns, lengthways from the tail to the head. You want it to keep the prawn straight; you don’t really need it to be sticking out on both sides.

Pour the marinade mixture over your prawns, and let them marinate for 2–3 hours at room temperature covered in an airtight container.

When your fire is at a medium heat test it with one prawn. If it burns, wait a bit longer. Don’t turn the prawns too much. As soon as the shells of the prawns turn a bright pink colour, they are done. Remove them from the fire immediately. Prawns are easily overcooked.

Divided into three sections that span his food journey, Dijo is an affirmation of South African cuisine, its heritage and its unique flavours. Readers will go on a journey through the simplest yet most-loved of township dishes, to the more complex fine-dining molecular gastronomy creations Lesego has become known for.
R345 | Published by Jacana

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twitter @LesDaChef

Unathi Twala