People still give a shocked expression of surprise when I tell them that my company, LesDaChef Culinary Solutions, has only been around for just over a year. For some reason people assume the business has been around for years.
My blog and social media accounts have been active for ages but during all the crazy tweeting, blogging and food shenanigans I had always been working for someone or for a company. It was only last year during January when I finally decided to jump ship and work for myself. It’s been a very very steep learning curve with a whole lot of blunders along the way. There have been some awesome moments and there have been some moments I would much rather forget. There have also been a whole lot of changes to my life. One of them being getting used to giving people the evil eye when they refer to me as a celebrity chef.
I have avoided the term like the plague from the very beginning of my career. I’ve built my brand up around my personality and my laid back view on fine dining and the industry I’m part of. You will hardly hear me name drop nor talk about where I’ve worked or who I have cooked for, its just not the type of person I am. The irony of all this? That very nature is what has gotten me the title.
I was given a call at the beginning of June to inquire if I would be interested in taking part in a South African version of Top Chef. At the time I was actually asked to be a contestant. I laughed at the idea and found reasons to say no, I’m not a cooking contestant kind of chef, I wouldn’t survive a week! A week later I got called again and asked to be a judge instead. I laughed at this idea as well. As much as I have been on nearly every English radio station in South Africa (don’t ask, I also don’t know why people wanna hear a chef on the radio) I had never really envisioned myself ever being on tv. It’s just not something I had written down as a goal, plus I’m forever laughing at people on tv…I didn’t know how I felt about suddenly being on the receiving end of it.
The producers of the show apparently had been studying my social media and my chef career and I had been labelled as “spicy” and “controversial”. I disagree! I’m the most harmless person you’d ever meet! After a bit of back and forth about the futility of having me on a chef cooking show I eventually agreed to take part. Little did I know what I was in store for…
Top Chef is a global franchise, its filmed in 26 other countries in the world and is the original chef cooking competition, other shows have come along since and have copied it’s format and taken bits and pieces from it. I won’t name them but I’m sure you can work out which ones I’m referring to. To prepare myself and to get to understand the show a bit better I went and downloaded a whole lot of international versions of it, just to get a better understanding of how the judges behaved and what to look for. Mind you, I’m not one who usually watches cooking shows (yes, believe it or not I actually prefer cook books to cooking shows).
I was only told that I was going to be a judge 2 weeks before filming actually began. For months I had been on a steady diet of crap food and beer. I had been neglecting my gym routine and eating plan and was one big human ball of regret and with just 2 weeks notice there was no way I would get back into shape in time for the filming but I tried, goddammit I tried. I was at gym 5 days a week, drinking water like I was a sponge and making food and eating choices a goat would be proud of. I had always heard rumours about how tv adds loads of kg’s to you and makes you look like a telly tubby if you’re even the slightest bit flabby. The joys of this vanity filled life!
Anyway I lost whatever weight I could lose and to the rest of it I said “fuck it, I’m stuck with you for the ride”. D-day for the shoot came and so I discovered my worst nightmare…make-up. My God, with the amount of make-up I wore for the month of shooting I could probably plaster my whole house. Waking up at 5am to be on set at 7am wasn’t exactly the greatest joy either.
So the day of shooting basically ran like this: 7am call time (call time is basically when you need to be at the studio), make up and hair for the judges until around 9am. Yes, that’s how long it would take to get Lorna and us ready. What you see on tv isn’t how we woke up. I’ve got a certain situation happening on the top of my head that apparently needs a shit load of makeup and powdering, so I would take a little longer than Neill to get ready. I made the mistake of mentioning that I’m a biker to our stylist, so guess who landed up with the whole “leather jacket” look for the show. I would soon live to regret telling him that.
The actual Top Chef studio is built into an old abandoned cinema at Brightwater Commons. The entire kitchen is temporary and made of plywood. You know how flimsy those houses in America look, the ones they build for that home makeover show in like 2 weeks? Yep, the studio was basically built in the same way. All the walls are thin plywood and there wasn’t a ceiling, instead if you looked up whilst in the studio you were basically met with a whole lot of bright boom lights (the reason why I sweated a whole Amazon river) and small cctv type cameras. In total we counted about 20 cameras at any one time in the studio with us.
I’ll detail the show, the awesome crew we worked with and blog more details about it after this season ends.
The relationship between the judges and the contestants was basically non-existent. We would start and end it at greetings. To make sure there wasn’t any favouritism or funny business we kept our distance at most times when we werent in studio. It was funny as we’re all human at the end of the day and are drawn to certain personalities, so with time we did grow fond of certain people but when it came to the actual judging and neutrality of the show we were professional all the way. I got a Facebook post the other day where someone was ranting about us being biased in a certain episode they had watched. I just ignored it. We honestly were 100% genuine with all the judging and comments.
Another thing people who watch the show don’t take into account is that the show is designed in a certain way for a reason. It took us about 3 days to shoot the first episode for instance, when I watched the final product I was shocked at just how much of the stuff you record doesn’t end up in the final product. I’m a pretty chilled and sarcastic person in general, I love the odd laugh and quirky joke…all that was cut out. If you watch the international versions of Top Chef you’ll notice that the majority of the funny stuff is usually provided by the host or guest judges. So for the first 3 weeks of the show being televised all I got was comments about how serious I look and why I didn’t smile! Haha. Speaking of social media, another phenomenon that finishes me is how people seem to assume that just because I’m on tv I must interact and talk to people in a different way. It’s almost as if people think being on tv is a magical cloak that transforms you into a new being who suddenly must fart gold dust. Nah, never that!
A few weeks ago I was doing my usual tweeting about this that and the other (look, even though I’m a chef I tweet and talk about anything and everything I like on my social media accounts). I then started poking fun at habits people who are from where I’m from have when it comes to food. All in jest and for a simple laugh. Lo and behold some woke people (I was going to use a stronger word but my momma taught me better) decided that I was being anti-black and being a “better black” and that I was laughing AT black people’s culture. Mind you, the majority of the tweets were about processed food and my people’s love for it, something I will never ever stop talking about, we need to stop eating crap chemical filled food that was thrust on us by white-owned food conglomerates, anyway, I digress. I laughed it off coz, well, the person was an idiot, even after I tried being nice to them they continued ranting away. It made me realise that for some reason people assume because you’re now known by more than 10 people you will automatically start tweeting and writing like you’re a pseudo role model! Woo shem. If this is what a celeb chef life is like then I don’t want it.
There were many fun and funny behind the scenes moments. In every episode Lorna wears a different pair of Louboutin shoes. I reckon I am now an expert at them, there are 13 episodes in the season so you can imagine how many pairs I’ve seen. Shoes that are designed to just look good but at every opportunity she got off camera the shoes were always thrown off or lying in a corner somewhere. Lol. Whenever you see us at the judges table Lorna is always in slippers. I kid you not. There was also Neill and his addiction to coffee and Krispy Kream doughnuts. The dude would go through about 10 espressos a day. He also has the uncanny talent of finishing almost a dozen doughnuts in the course of one shoot! The vibe between the 3 of us was a good one, we are totally different in demeanour and attitudes and it definitely helped in how we interacted with guest judges and the contestants.
So has life changed since I’m now on a TV show? Well, yes. I have never ever done this many media interviews in my life before. There was one week where I was on 7 various radio shows. I was asked “nicely” to not drink like a fish in public and to definitely not drive home, even after a beer or two coz it will become a scandal. I personally believe I’m not that interesting enough to be in tabloids though. I’ve also had to accept that I need to smile at strangers when they say my name and not mean mug them. The neighbour’s kids realised last week that I’m on tv and now scream my name at every opportunity they glimpse me outside the house. There are emails galore and I’m basically swamped with requests every week. Food festivals, campaigns, events, products. I was even asked to come judge a church food event a few days ago! I’ve also learned there are companies who specialise solely in managing your time if you’re someone in the spotlight. It’s a whole new world to me and it amuses me to hear people say “but you haven’t changed Les”. Nope, I’m still the same crazy guy from ko kasi chasing a loony dream.