Merise Magazine Cover Girl. The story of Mel’s immigration from Zimbabwe to South Africa and ultimately Australia.

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Vanilla Zulu ready to take on the world.

Meet the Queen of Culinary Bling!

5th May 1982, Beit Bridge border post, Zimbabwe

A young couple exits Zimbabwe for the last time, leaving behind all their assets and generations of memories. They grip the hands of their two small children tightly as they walk past officials who decided they may take only their suitcases and $80 cash. The family vehicle is confiscated. They are fleeing to safety, and hopefully a brighter future.

A sigh escapes the lips of the 7-year old blonde girl as she looks back over her shoulder. Her favourite Boab trees are standing proud, with branches stretching into the air as if they are waving goodbye, or are they perhaps begging her to stay? She looks down at the seemingly calm waters of the imposing Limpopo river. The bridge stretches for more than a kilometre, and her legs are getting tired. She looks up. In the distance is South Africa. At the end of the bridge are the familiar faces of relatives, calling their names and waving at them. It is almost over. She looks at the tired faces of her parents. They both look emotionally drained, defeated. She has never seen her mother cry so much. Don’t cry, mommy, everything will turn out for us.

… and it did!

March 2018, Queensland, Australia

Shrieks of laughter fill the air at No 1 Macgregor street, Wilson, as students of the Vanilla Zulu cooking school are learning how to transform a regular meal into a delectable delight! Today’s theme is ‘How to make your food look sexy’, which is based on Melanie Alafaci Townsend’s latest book with the same name. Melanie also wrote the ‘Little Black book of Culinary Bling’.

With her vivacious personality, Melanie coaxes even shy students into cooking action. Nobody can feel sad or lonely in her interactive classes. She adds special ingredients like wine, laughter and friendly bantering to lift the mood and create a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere.

Melanie has an absolute flair for food and loves presenting ordinary food exquisitely. She creates happy, sexy, colourful, unpretentious food, bursting with personality, flavour and texture. Mel became a passionate foodie at the age of four when she received her first recipe book from her parents. She never looked back. For her, food is not only comfort and entertainment. Food is her world! Growing up in rural Zimbabwe, and later rural South Africa, she always had an abundance of time and fresh produce which fuelled her imagination. She was constantly thinking of innovative ways to cook and present food.

Moving to Australia is an integral part of Mel’s story. ‘I still miss Africa every day, but Australia is a wonderful country to live,’ says Melanie. For Mel, the hardest part was leaving friends and family behind. Luckily modern technology allows her to keep in touch regularly.

Arriving in Australia was challenging. ‘We did not know where to buy things, and we did not understand some of the Aussie sayings. We made quite a few hilarious discoveries along the way! The warm and friendly welcome from Australians was a pleasant surprise. We tried giving back by making the ground

floor of our two bedroom apartment available to new arrivals from South Africa for eighteen months, and made wonderful friends in the process.’

It was probably always on the cards that Melanie would one day run a cooking school in Australia, as she ran one successfully when she lived in Durban. After working in other companies for about three years, she found the perfect venue and Vanilla Zulu was born!

Merise asked Melanie a few questions:

What do you enjoy most about Vanilla Zulu?

The best part is sharing my enthusiasm and passion in a fun, relaxed kitchen studio environment. It is much more glamorous than commercial kitchens, which can be cold and cruel. I also get to pick my kids up from school every day, which means the world to me. And I get to meet the most amazing people through my work. Apparently, I like talking as much as I love cooking, so a cooking school is a perfect fit for me!

What is the biggest challenge of running a cooking school?

In the beginning, I had to convince everyone I wasn’t JUST cooking African food. I can teach most cuisines as I am classically French trained and have travelled all over.

The other challenge was getting potential clients to understand how fun and un-intimidating my classes are. I share everything. Every short-cut, trick and recipe I know. I love to see the sparkle in my client’s eyes when I show them how to make something that has been too daunting for them to try. Luckily my enthusiasm quickly rubs off on them. It makes me very proud when I see students returning for more classes.

How many students are currently enrolled at your cooking school?

We do once-off three-hour classes, a six-week Chef Skills Course and corporate team building events. All in all, I see about 70 or 100 students per week. I do have other chefs though, but for the first five years I pretty much did every class myself.

Tell us about new ingredients that you discovered in Australia

Well, first of all, it was a whole new world of discovery learning the Aussie names for things. Don’t ask an Aussie for a brinjal (I learned the hard way). I also discovered Tim

Tams, orange/sometimes pink sweet potatoes, jerky, fairy bread, vegemite, Anzac cookies, kangaroo meat, barramundi and my personal favourite…the sausage sizzle!

What are your plans for Vanilla Zulu?

We have enjoyed steady growth over the last seven years, and we are now finally moving into bigger, better, groovier premises. I am also working on my new cookbook and in-house TV show on YouTube called Kitchen Angel. ( I look forward to making my classes accessible to passionate foodies everywhere!

What makes Vanilla Zulu unique to other cooking schools?

I have a purely domestic fit-out, which means my students can produce EXACTLY what I do in the comfort of their own homes. I also teach them how to use equipment that they already have, instead of investing in unnecessary gadgets. I call myself MacGyver in the kitchen because I can always make a plan with minimal equipment. Perhaps it is my bush upbringing and living on a remote farm. It makes you thrifty! We also value and treasure each of our guests. I make sure everyone feels welcome and gets individual attention. That is the heart and soul of Vanilla Zulu.

Clearly Zimbabwe’s loss was Australia’s gain. The little girl who walked over the bridge that day has matured into a bubbly, confident and successful businesswoman. The experience of being displaced and having to start over again in two different countries has moulded her into a well-rounded individual with a free and adventurous spirit. She embraces new places, new people, new views and new cultures and is not afraid of change.

She is wildly passionate about her job and finds her inspiration in everyday life. Her students call her the Happy Chef or Chef Smiley. She has a lust for life and appreciates the little things.

Melanie dreams big: ‘I would love to travel the world and discover more food and other cultures. I would love to have a foot in South Africa as well as Australia, and hopefully one day a global footprint through my books or show. I would love Vanilla Zulu to become the business I know it will be. I would love to write books and create recipes that would inspire and motivate many people. I also hope to get my range of food products into retail stores one day and help make every meal extraordinary!’


Can’t wait for Ekka Cooking School 2019!