Reflections. How I wrote Dijo

All these websites these days try get “chomi chomi” with you after your subscribe. Wishing you happy birthday and happy job anniversary or other random things like the day you accepted a strangers friend request. The celebration spam never ends. A recent such anniversary I’ve been notified about is from WordPress, the host of this here blog you’re reading. They’ve just told me it’s been 8 years now since I started this blog. For once I was actually interested in a website celebration spam message.

8 years is one hell of a long time. I was a totally different person 8 years ago, if the lack of hair on certain parts of my head and the new creases in my face aren’t obvious signs, then my writing and outlook on things definitely show it.

I started this blog because I honestly got tired of explaining long things on twitter. Back then twitter was just 140 characters per post and there weren’t things like threads. I would number each post and would use the hashtag #ChefTip, I would do it a few times a week…then every Sunday and eventually on random days and via my blog. The other reason I started this blog was to give people a glimpse of what I do for a living and to show the reality of living as a chef, the most popular posts over the years (besides the magwinya and SA food recipes) have been the posts where I wrote about chef life and what I was going through. People seem to always be curious about the lives of people in industries that involve creativity and high stress (and conversely the lives of people who don’t do much for a living…judging by the success of reality shows). I haven’t been sharing that much about my chef life over the past year or 2 though as it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. But worry not, here’s a new blog post.

Mama, I wrote a book.

I was approached to write a cook book about 6 years ago by Thabiso Mahlape (before she launched her awesome imprint ‘BlackBird Books’) but at the time I honestly didn’t think people would be interested in a cook book written by me. To be honest, I also wasn’t sure as to what type of chef I wanted to be at the time. I was still serving fine dining food and working for other people and was still pretty junior in the industry in terms of years of experience. I toyed with the idea of putting the manuscript together for about 4 years but my heart wasn’t in it.

Then just over 2 years ago I was approached again to consider the idea of a cook book, this time by my current publisher Nadia Goetham, a colleague of Thabiso’s at Jacana Media. We both didn’t know what we wanted the book to be…but I knew exactly what I wanted the book NOT to be. So I was sent off with a pile of cookbooks that Jacana had printed before to scheme away some concepts for a few months. I thought the idea of the book would die a slow and quiet death but I underestimated Nadia’s resolve. I would later go on to rename her “Mother Publisher” for obvious reasons.

After much ummming and ehhhhing I told Nadia I didn’t want a recipe book but a book about food stories. I had just finished filming Top Chef South Africa at the time and she was insistent on me being the focal point of the book. (If I had my way I wouldn’t even be on the cover actually). I told her the most popular posts on my blog were the stories about my chef life…and the recipes of local cuisine. I had also realised that whenever I was interviewed whether it be on TV, radio or print media the interviewers were most interested in my background rather than the fancy dishes I could make.

So the idea was agreed upon. I’d write a book about my journey…but told with food and recipes, from being a kid in Soweto to being the chef I am today. I was adamant that it couldn’t be a typical recipe book, it had to look and feel authentic and have snobbery as a non-existent feature. I didn’t want it to look pretty and over-edited and the imagery had to be authentic. It would be a book of the 3 phases of food life I’ve lived. And so, dear blog reader, the concept of my cook book was born.

Writing books is hell

I have writer friends and to this day I look at them sideways for not warning me about the stresses of writing, about the time lines and deadlines, about the insomnia and lack of words, about the writers block and then sudden abundance of words at 3am, about changing concepts and ideas after pages and pages of writing and lastly about the self-doubt. Writing falls into the same league as being a chef, musician or painter. You put you heart and soul into a plate, canvas, page or microphone and leave it out there for strangers to critique and judge. You’re never 100% sure if you’re going in the right direction…but you’re equally as stubborn to refuse to change the direction.

I wanted my book to tell stories…and so I had to dig deep in my memory bank. I asked my family for their fave food recipes…none were forthcoming coz, well, black folk don’t seem to write recipes down for some reason. I sat down and wrote down about 110 recipe names. I sent the list off to Nadia. We had agreed that the book would be about 240 pages (Jamie Oliver books are in the 500 page level, which is insane. Must be nice having a whole team to write and help you, anyway I digress). You never really realise just how many recipes are in a cook book until you have to write one. Well, in the end we actually only ended up with about 70 recipes because photography and various explanation sections and stories had to be included as well. I’m saving the discarded recipes for my next one…if there is a next one. *ahem*

All in all it took me about a year and a half to write the words for my book. You’d think that the hard word was done now, right? Ha!

What’s in a name?

From the start Nadia and I agreed that my book wouldn’t have an English title. I just didn’t know what to call it though. Then whilst I was driving I texted Nadia and said let’s called it “Dijo”…which directly translated simply means “food”. I also sent her other name ideas but this was the one that resonated, for its simplicity and its lack of pretense. I didn’t want a cryptic or poetic title…and I was also told by Nadia that people need to know that it’s a cookbook. So we needed a sub-title…and settled on “A chef’s journey” as that’s what the book was about. A chefs journey through food.

Dijo: A chef’s journey.

LOL. That’s not what it ended up being. Just before sending the book to the printers we had debates about the title, sub-title, cover and if it all made sense. We finally resolved that “A chef’s journey” sounded to clinical and impersonal and so I changed it to “My food. My journey.” (useless trivia: if you go onto Amazon they’ve used the old cover and the old title)

We also debated whether an explanation should be on the cover. My argument was that I’d written a cook book for my own people and that they would know what Dijo means and so there didn’t need to be an english translation on the cover, I strongly feel that we need to start celebrating the power of our own languages. Plus the word “Dijo” on its own on a book is provocative. That is why my book cover only has the word “Dijo” and nothing else (besides my cheesy face and my name)…but inside the covers it has the subtitle “My food. My journey”. The cover was also changed at the last minute. The book was originally going to have the word “Dijo” embossed in silver and look like this…

Cook books need pictures

Writing a recipe is just a small part of a cook book. You can’t just put together your favourite recipes, take some pics of the food and then put a picture of yourself smiling cheesily on a cover and sell it. So I was introduced to my book stylist Roxy (she has a whole lot of other titles for what she does but I always forget them) and my photographer Claire. Both Capetonians. I had written a book about my life in Soweto. This would be interesting.

First duties was me calling Roxy and explaining in detail exactly who I was and what I wanted the book to become. I don’t know how many times I said I don’t want it to be a typical cook book. I also mumbled stuff like “it must feel like a Joburg and Soweto book”. Fast forward a few months and my lovely pancreas decided to pack up and go on permanent sabbatical whilst we were scouting places to shoot visuals for my book.

I literally ended up in hospital on the day we finished seeking out places to shoot pics for my book. I was in hospital for 2 weeks and needed a few more weeks to adjust to my new insulin injecting life. This delayed my book by about 6 weeks. The stress levels were hitting critical levels now for everyone as my book had already been announced to the media and to book sellers. The steam train was going and there was no reverse. We had a very rough manuscript but no pictures and no cover…and no proof that the recipes actually worked.

So I got onto a jet plane and hopped down to Cape Town. 80% of the food pictures in Dijo were ironically shot down in Cape Town even though its a book about the food I grew to love in Joburg. The props I needed for the look and feel I wanted for the book were only available at short notice in Cape Town. I lived down there for 2 weeks shooting and cooking. We had a tight deadline and I had to test each recipe twice and would wake up at 6am each morning, go source fresh ingredients…and then test my recipes, all whilst being tailed by a photographer. We managed to make and shoot 5-6 recipes per day and include a few location shots. I kid you not. That’s how crazy it all was. If you’re wondering who pays for all this…it would the person currently typing this out. Me.

If you have a copy of Dijo you’ll notice the use of African prints in certain sections. We kept the dishes in the first section as plain and as rustic as possible, I didn’t want the pics to look like magazine pictures. This was to signify my life before chef school. The pictures in the middle section of the book are neat and clinical, this is on purpose. This is when I’m showing the chef school snobbery coming in. The last section has pictures that are a mix of fancy and rustic, this was me showing how the journey has evolved to become a mix of my whole life.

We then flew up to Joburg a week or 2 later to shoot the last bits in Soweto, Maboneng and other locations. We shot SO MUCH footage, not even a tenth of it is in the book, hopefully we’ll be able to use it in future books *ahem*. The pictures taken in Soweto are my favourite by far, that coal stove is in my grandmother’s kitchen and we actually used it to cook. That image of me standing over the stove isnt staged, I was waiting for the heat to cook the dombolo under the foil.

If I had my way, the picture of my gran’s stove would have been the cover of Dijo but I was told that so-called celeb chefs have to be on the cover of their books. I don’t know what that means coz I’m not a celeb chef *rolls eyes*. We compromised by making it the back cover of the book.

The picture of my mom in the book is the very last picture ever taken of her. We didn’t know it at the time. She sadly passed away just 3 months after the book came out but I’m so proud to have managed to get Dijo released whilst she was still alive. (I’ll forever miss you Mama)

Whilst Roxy was picking fonts and moving images around and dealing with the pretty side of the book I had to still handle the other side, the words and writing. We were now in editing phase and every 2nd day my inbox would be hit with new editions of my manuscript, I had to proof read my editors changes as well as answer questions and queries she had about certain sentences and language. Once that was done it was then sent off to yet another proofreader and editor. My editor actually thanked me, she said I write like I’ve written books before so it was easy editing for her, I’m just glad she didn’t fiddle with my writing style and language. The one major change she did make, though, was to remove my chef recipe writing style. We’re taught how to write standard recipes at chef school, it’s a chef standard way of putting ingredients and methodology down. Apparently it’s not user friendly for cookbooks, who knew? Guys, making books is not child’s play. I don’t know how many times I had to read my book during editing, it was so much that I actually haven’t read it in its entirety since it was released.

I’m leaving out quite a bit, the stories behind the pics at Bara taxi rank, almost being arrested at the Joburg Market, the Maboneng photo shoot and a group of young guys gatecrashing our shoot (and actually ending up in the book), the pics we took in the old part of Joburg and pics we took with ladies of the night. I’m also leaving out the stuff that came just before and after the book came out, all the launches, interviews and book festivals (which is also a lot of work). I’ll save all that for my Youtube channel otherwise this post will never end. I’ve already posted some vids of book festivals I’ve been featured at on my channel. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/dipitsengwithlesdachef

If you still don’t have a copy and are wondering where it is sold, here’s a list of places where it is stocked. If it’s not in stock tell them to order it.

Update: The book has gone into reprint and due to popular demand will be on more shelves and more stores going forward. Oh, and a “bestseller” sticker has been added to the cover. I’m beyond humbled.

A certain sticker has been added to the cover

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