What kind of a cook are you? Are you looking for easy recipes and a round of applause at dinnertime from the family? A few cheats, some tips, and a lazy life? Maybe you rate yourself as a hopeless cook? Tired of washing six hundred pans every time you put a meal on the table? Well Chef Mel A (not C) is the Chef for all of you and she might even sing or get you to sing for your supper. Beware her spell. You may break into song with joy in your heart and food in your belly.
Vanilla Zulu Cooking school and Chef Mel A entertained and trained us for a solid three hours and we came away delighted and wanting more – this was a corporate event which was organised at the Cooking School and we were approximately 25 women and a few men interacting, measuring and producing delicious dishes.
Having seen her engage us all, I wanted more of Chef Mel A and so I met her at Mercado where we could wander around the fresh produce and conjure up a few more recipes over cups of tea and fresh cranberry juice.
My first question was why Vanilla Zulu – and her lovely face lights up. She remembers a pasty friend dancing Zulu dances with delight on his return to Africa. A Vanilla Zulu! She loves vanilla but she is also African having spent some formative years in Kwazulu Natal and while she is a gorgeous blonde, probably smelling of vanilla essence, her heart is African and the combination of the two words is reminiscent of her roots and also her passion.
Mel A was born in Zimbabwe – to a mother and father who spent their early years in the bush. Her dad, to whom she is very close, is still in the bush, out hunting poachers and making sure the animals are safe. She grew up on a remote farm and adored cooking from a young age borrowing any cooking books she could lay her hands on from the local and small library. She was told it was not a good profession to go into, especially then as a young woman, but she was quite determined and became a chef at the age of 21.
She combined her love of travel and cheffing for a while but after her two years travel visa was over she realised she needed to return and start her career. After a few years in the food industry, she started her own business in a granny flat in their home named Gecko Culinary Adventures. Mel by this time is married with two young babies. They left Zim in a hurry after two family members were dispossessed of their property and murdered. Living in South Africa at the time had its own dangers and challenges, not least power outages and shortages, but more importantly, being caught in an armed robbery at the local supermarket from which she managed to escape unharmed. South Africans have almost becoming inured to the daily violence but she knew that she needed to secure a better future for her sons so in 2007 they emigrated to Brisbane.
Her early years here were spent working for others but using her special skills at procuring and designing food products for companies as diverse as Movenpick, Gourmet Garden and Subway.
She finally felt that she could pick up where she had left off in Africa and opened a cooking school in Wilston. After the lease ran out, she was looking for another place and came across this wonderful large space in Teneriffe where Vanilla Zulu is currently housed. She runs the school with enthusiasm and a lot of love and brings in part-time chefs who have special expertise other than her own. Tong does Thai, Yoshi is just about to do a Japanese Cooking class and there is Jan, Connor and Adam, who also help out with Mediterranean adventures, Spanish cooking classes and many more. See the website for what is on offer.
There are lots of chefs around, so a little provocatively I asked Chef Mel what she thought she brought to the table. She has understood her point of difference; she knows what she wants out of the school and out of the people who attend them. She defines herself as the Queen of Bling – the person who can make a chicken breast sexy and succulent and who can take a cauliflower to hitherto unknown heights of culinary yumminess. In her very own words, she is happiest “taking the everyday and ordinary and making it extraordinary.” She has her own range of Culinary Spray Tan, a blend of turmeric with Ras el Hanout and the sexiest Black Salt Flakes which I have to mention as they come from my homeland Cyprus, and Mel has introduced me to them.
She describes herself as a feeder, a nurturer, and you can see that from the way she will share favourite recipes with the class, impart tricks and tips to make time in the kitchen smoother and more fun and then wow everyone with the deliciousness of the meal which inevitably follows – there is no better affirmation of a cook’s confidence and capability than their absolute willingness to sit with the class and share the meal they all prepared.
The classes can be small and private – think hen parties and special menus which she is happy to help devise. They can be comforting introductions to processes that a new bride or groom may encounter in the kitchen. Small groups of 10 or large corporate affairs of 80 designed to showcase products or corporations. They also run classes on a weekly basis with special themes, Tapas, Mediterranean and Japanese. There is versatility and flexibility about what is on offer but above all, there is fun and laughter and a delicious meal at the end of each one.
Finally, I ask Mel what is around the corner – in her sights now, and a little further down the road – her dreams and aspirations. MKR has just filmed one of their sessions in Vanilla Zulu and Mel coordinated that wonderfully. Her next project is running the EKKA Cooking School in August of 2019 and then a little further down the road … “Well a cooking show which takes the form of a Kitchen Angel – actually being on hand to guide those of you out there who finally need to get the crackling right or the veggies delicious- making a difference in a positive and permanent way to lives lived in the kitchen. Gently making any of those people who say my wife, partner, brother, mother is a terrible cook, finally eat their words“.
For more on Chef Mel A and the Vanilla Zulu Cooking School go to Vanillazulu.com.au