At its core food is a powerful vehicle for storytelling, believes social media foodie and designer Chuene Lefala. The Limpopo-born creative says that while we may consume food for sustenance, it plays a major role in our claim to our individual identities as humans.
Not only do we tell stories about food, but we also tell stories with food by using it to evoke emotions and convey ideas. We tell stories over food too, which posits food as the vehicle that binds us together, fostering unity.
“Food is who we are, where we come from, what we believe. It is a bit of ourselves compacted into dishes and bites,” Lefala professes.
Through an Instagram page she calls El’s Kitchen Chronicles, Lefala documents and shares trials, tribulations and cooking tips from her journey in the food space with no less than 20 000 followers.
Raised in the village of Ga-Mothapo in the north-eastern part of what she jokingly refers to as the “republic of Limpopo”, Lefala’s own food story was born from a place of scarcity.
“There were days where I had very little, and had to get creative with what I had,” she explains.
Food, she says, has a message to spread, so tune in, she says mildly. “Think about it – every meal, snack, each bite is a story. It’s a memory where you can revisit the love and care that went into actually making that meal, how you ate it, the nutrients, all those little details are a story.”
‘Listen, I am no caterer’
While she may have an avid love for cooking and sharing kitchen secrets, the food creative says she has no intention of entering the food business. “People have asked me for business quotes in the past, but it surprises them when I mention that I am not in the catering business.
“It scares the hell out of me. I mean the amount of carefulness you need to ensure that your food is fresh, clean and safe to consume all the time. It’s scary.”
The creation of her page stems from her yearning of creative expression.
“The kitchen is an outlet where I creatively express myself. The whole reason why I share recipes is because I wanted to convey the message that you can do more with less, without breaking the bank. I wanted to tell my own unique story through cooking and I was honestly shocked at home many people resonated with my story,” she says.
In its true essence, food is art, she believes. “It invokes a sensual and emotional reaction within people,” she says passionately.
Lefala has always had a penchant for creativity and wanted to explore careers in the space. However living in a village, children are not often afforded the opportunities to explore their creativity.
“I wish our parents and schools, regardless of their location, public or private were more supportive of creative careers. I wish public schools, including the ones in rural areas offered more subjects to learners so that we are not limited when it comes to choosing careers to pursue.
“I felt limited when I finished matric because I could not apply to fields such as architecture at some universities due to their requirements.”
Lefala reveals that cooking was a daunting task when she was growing up. “I didn’t care much for cooking. I honestly hated cooking and mainly because there were a lot of limitations and rules of what you could and could not cook.”
She cultivated a relationship with cooking while she was enrolled to the University of Cape Town in 2012 for a course in construction studies. “So my real passion for cooking began in varsity when I realized that it is another form of expression and I did not have to play by someone’s rules.”
She graduated in 2014 and worked for a construction company as a junior construction manager. In 2017, she quit her job. “Even though I still love the construction industry I think that the outcome might have been different if our communities did not have some of these restrictions or if or communities did not look down on some careers, especially in the creative industry.”
Two-years later, Lefala decided to explore her interest in design through fashion. Today she expresses her creativity through food and fashion design. “Since I was eight, I used to sew clothing with some of my mother’s old curtains.”
“On the other hand, cooking is a beautiful side of me that allows me to be creative in weird facets of my life. It has helped me get through the tough times,” she says.
‘My black likeness is not for sale’
Of all the food stories she enjoys, Lefala adores the tales of her own heritage.
“African food is a story, a divers one at that. Somehow this diversity merges into a story of unity,” she says.
Historically, African cuisine had been labelled inferior by the world. “We are finally stepping out of those stereotypical views that Eurocentric foods are superior and ours is inferior.”
Indigenous food is slowly being embraced. However, with this embrace, food appropriation has been allowed to rear its ugly head, she says.
“Since I became an Instagrammer, I have also come to the realization that sometimes, society and some brands tend to use the idea of African culture for profit without the appreciation of the culture and the people. That I find sad and disappointing.”
The perception that indigenous food was unhealthy is equally disturbing, she says.
“I always make a joke and tell my friends actually we (black people) have always been vegetarians. I grew up eating meatless meals, a lot of the food I was raised with were rich, whole foods.
“Our elders grew up as children of the soil who grow their own food. We grew up poor, but we grew our own food. The story we have been given is foreign to our cultures,” she says.
“We still have a long way to go in terms of cultivating our own story and making sure it sticks,” she says passionately.
The young creative has future plans in place to pursue her qualification in interior design and cooking and to launch her own YouTube cooking channel. “A girl is allowed to dream, right?”
Lefala advises home cooks and chefs to simply be yourself. “Do not emulate. When it comes to the kitchen you need your own voice, go crazy and let the pots lead you.”