HARARE, ZIMBABWE — A spread of vegetables meets your eye as you enter Chef Cola’s kitchen. Sliced, chopped, torn; these vegetables make for a colorful display as the chef is deciding on what to toss into the sauté pan first.
Chef Cola, whose full name is Nicola Kagoro, takes a sip of wine and tosses carrots into the pan. Then, the garlic.
Kagoro says she fell into cooking when she was a child: “I knew I had always wanted to be a chef. Since I was a kid. I told my parents this, and they discouraged me. As they felt in this country, it would not be a sustainable profession.”
INSIDE THE STORY: The crippled economy might prevent Zimbabweans from becoming vegans, but the underlying issue is culture. There’s a nostalgia for the old delicacies, and a tradition of never turning down food that is offered. Read the blog.
But when she was in college, studying hotel management at the International Hotel School in Cape Town, South Africa, Kagoro finally decided to become a chef. She formally dropped out of the institution when she began working in a restaurant kitchen, although she continues to pursue her college education today, via a Harare-based agency.
“I just walked into the kitchen of a restaurant called Plant Café, a vegan restaurant in Cape Town, and applied for a post, any post,” she says.
At Plant Café, Kagoro worked as a prep cook, helping the head chef prepare for meals by cutting, fetching and carrying just about anything. She did not know that the restaurant was vegan, and only found out after she got the job and began learning about vegan food.
True to the fundamentals of veganism, the restaurant did not use any meat or animal products in their food – including eggs and dairy.
“I did my research on the vegan lifestyle and fell in love with it,” she says. It was both the health aspect and the versatility of the food that caught her attention. Eventually, Kagoro found herself leading large catering events for Plant Café kitchen as a head chef.
Today, she is breaking ground in Zimbabwe as one of the first black female vegan chefs in Harare.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Kagoro says she is often asked why she chose to specialize in vegan food.
“I was asked, ‘Why vegan?’ and I say why not?” she remarks, as she adds more ingredients to the pan and a delightful aroma wafts around the kitchen.
“If you’re white, no one will ask you why you are vegan. They will just say, ‘Oh, she’s white.’”
Many black people associate wealth or good fortune with being able to afford or have the largest piece of meat. Meat is considered a cornerstone of an African meal, while for some, being vegan is viewed as a Western construct.
“It’s understandable for them and not understandable for us [black people]. Unless you’re sick. And I say fuck that shit,” she says of Zimbabwean attitudes toward veganism.
Kagoro’s mother, Patricia Parwada, acknowledges her daughter’s success. Although she admits that she did not entirely understand the concept of veganism at first, Parwada is now seeing the scope and potential of her daughter’s vision.
“I wanted her to get a diploma in hotel management – she had decided she was a vegan chef,” Parwada says. “That is where the trouble began.”
Parwada, who is a diplomat by profession, says she was angered by Kagoro’s choice to work at Plant Café and to put a pause on her studies.
“[Nicola’s] sisters would show me these images of her hosting these events for 1,000 people, and I would get very upset,” she says.
Parwada then decided it was better for Kagoro to leave Cape Town and come back to Harare. After she had returned, Kagoro heard about the “TM Pick n Pay Battle of the Chefs” TV series, sponsored by a supermarket chain, and she decided to enter the competition as a vegan chef.
“Nicola told me that she wanted to enter as a vegan chef, and I said, ‘But you are not a chef!’” Parwada says. “We’d see her cooking in the kitchen, but we never bothered with what she was doing, and of course we would eat, and sometimes we would enjoy.”
Kagoro entered the competition as an amateur. She was the only vegan chef. Aside from the popular notion that meat is the major source of protein in a meal, the belief that animals aren’t meant for consumption is not a common one – especially when the diet extends beyond vegetarianism, as veganism does.
“I couldn’t understand it myself, because I know vegetarian – we grew up with that. I had never heard of vegan.”
Yet, Parwada took her daughter to the auditions, and Kagoro was called back after an hour.
“I naturally assumed that they didn’t even consider her, but I was shocked to find out that they were very impressed by her, and she had won a spot in the top 16 [chefs].”
Shortly after, Kagoro launched herself into the Zimbabwean catering scene by creating an annual series of 13 intimate get-togethers, “Dinners With Chef Cola,” in which she cooks and serves, and sometimes even dines with her guests. Now her mother has a different perspective; she’s proud.
“Nicola had always known what she wanted. The problem was me believing in her,” Parwada says.
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Dinners With Chef Cola
At these 13 dinners, guests enjoy excellent service, good company and, of course, a variety of vegan dishes – most often in the comfort of Kagoro’s home. Patrons pay an advance deposit to reserve a seat.
The purpose of the dinners is to provide a homey, intimate vibe, with every guest not only savoring good food but also making new friends and networking.
“There is so much potential in Zimbabwe,” Kagoro says. “I am starting this from scratch, doing this on my own, self-funded. Money comes when it comes.”
Kagoro’s dinners are always hosted, and each dinner has a different host who encourages conversation among guests and makes sure everyone is having a good time.
One of her most recent dinners was hosted by radio personality Arnold Chirimika, who goes by the stage name SoProfound.
“It is more than people just coming through to eat. It’s people coming through to network and share experiences over food. It’s about making people feel comfortable and feel at home,” Chirimika explains, regarding his hosting role.
He also says that during the meal he learned a lot about vegan food and culture.
“I have a thing against any meals that do not have meat,” Chirimika says, laughing. “Even if I am having a salad. I am having a salad and meat.”
When it came time to try the meal, he was skeptical about whether he would enjoy it.
“I was blown away [by the food],” he says. “It’s not something I’d want to try for the rest of my life, but, occasionally, I would enjoy it.”
Chirimika admits that he felt as if his “mind was being stretched to a new experience, having had and enjoyed a vegan meal from starter to dessert,” and he says that Kagoro’s idea has potential longevity, because she is creating a following for a model that can be enjoyed in different ways.
“It’s not about it being a mass concept,” says Chirimika. “It’s about bringing together people who like that sort of thing, or those that like to experience new things. She is gathering a tribe of people and can do so successfully for a long time.”
The concept, as Kagoro says, is really a movement – one including a challenge to the notion that veganism in Zimbabwe is an exclusively white lifestyle.
“The whole movement is bigger than me,” she says, adding that she is intent on pioneering this movement successfully.
“The main pull is the cultivation the vegan culture in Harare – in Zimbabwe, in Africa – because there is none. If it’s there, it’s for the whites. It’s not a black thing. Who says just because you are this color you must be doing this? We need to stop this culture, as black people, of putting ourselves and others in a box.
“I am a vegan chef because I am and I can.”