A Seat at the Table

You might know her as the celebrity chef from the Food Network’s Siba’s Table, but Siba Mtongana, the woman, is much more than that. And when it comes to productivity, Siba knows a thing or two.

 

“I think at the core of who I am, I want to make an impact and improve people’s lives. I don’t just want to do food on a surface level.”

In addition to being a culinary phenomenon, with a global following in more than 135 countries, she is also a savvy businesswoman, a multi-award winning author, a mother, a wife, a fighter, and of course, an inspiration to many.

Her latest project – the release of her very own pop-up restaurant, SIBA, which opened on 21 December at the Table Bay hotel in Cape Town – is a culmination of a years’ long journey to get to where she is today.

Siba had humble beginnings. Growing up in the Eastern Cape, she is one of six siblings. Food was ingrained in her upbringing, and served as the heart and soul of her family life.

“Food brought my family together. Anything thing that required a celebration – be it Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays – food was always at the center of everything we did,” she says. The majority of memories are of me being the resident chef at home.”

With this foundation, she went on to study Food and Consumer Sciences at the Cape Peninsular University of Technology in Cape Town, majoring in Food Sciences and Nutrition. This gave her the culinary education she dreamed of pursuing, whilst still being ‘academic’ enough to gain her parents’ approval.

While Siba’s parents always believed she would be successful, their hesitance stemmed from their unfamiliarity with the food industry.

“I wanted to follow the path of making food into a career, but I remember my parents were against it because at the time because there was no one of colour who was highly successful whom they could say I could walk in their footsteps or have them as my role model,” she explains.

Since then, Siba has forged her own path of success – she worked as a food editor at Drum magazine for five years after completing her studies, she published her first cookbook, My Table, in 2015, and in 2020, her business and entrepreneurial journey was included as a case study as part of Harvard University literature. Unsurprisingly, she is now considered by others as the inspiration she wished she had.

“I think I really I am, you know, one of the first ‘celebrity chefs’ from Africa that has made it on a global scale – well, according to Harvard University at least. And people do consider me as someone whom they can emulate their careers on. There was never anyone who we could look up to – and now it seems I serve that role.”

Not only are people emulating their careers on Siba’s, but so too are her millions of fans replicating her meals and subsequent lifestyle tips.

“I think at the core of who I am, I want to make an impact and improve people’s lives. I don’t just want to do food on a surface level. I look at the nutritional aspect of food. I advise people on how to eat within reason and portion so that we can take of our bodies. I try to influence family values by encourage families to eat together.

“With my latest cookbook, for example, my aim was to expose children to good quality, nutritious food at a young age, so that by the time they are older, they are able to make better lifestyle choices. Better food decisions will also help limit illnesses and diseases,” she says.

So, I do believe that I do food as part of a ministry in a way – as a part of a service that I provide to people.”

Being the wife, mother and business mogul that she is doesn’t come without exceptional time management, planning and organization, however. For this reason, Siba is also known as the “queen of convenience” for the quick meals and preparation tips she provides.

“Prepare, prepare, prepare ahead of time,” she advises for busy women. When hosting a big dinner of lunch, she says the main course and dessert should always be prepared in advance, where possible. Then, on the day “it’s a matter of just warming that up and garnishing for 20 minutes or less,” she says.

She also encourages that women should not be afraid to ask for help. “If you’ve got family coming over, ask them to help you with certain dishes that will supplement the main course you have prepared, such as a salad or a drink.”

“This allows people to feel as though they have contributed to you event whilst also takes the pressure off you having to do everything yourself.”

Lastly, she says seafood is a great hack when having to prepare an impressive – and tasty – meal in little time. “Calamari, salmon trout or sea bass with some nice vegetables to go with it. It can be prepared in 10 minutes. Seafood is your best bet.”

While COVID-19 has slowed many industries down, Siba’s goals and ambitions have only grown. She is currently working on a new cookbook – which she calls her “family cookbook” – sharing recipes that she cooks at home with her children.

With so much under her belt, Siba is continuing to break down barriers in the culinary world – and inspiring others from all walks of life to do the same. Through her fearless attitude and unmatched work ethic, Sib is one of Fast Company’s most productive – and successful – women in around.

With so much under her belt, Siba is continuing to break down barriers in the culinary world – and inspiring others from all walks of life to do the same.

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