Kasi cuisine: 4 Roomed eKasi Culture

4 Roomed eKasi Culture is SA’s first fine-dining venture in the townships – a concept blending ubuntu with traditional fare which restaurateur Abigail Mbalo intends launching internationally

What: 4 Roomed eKasi Culture

Where: Khayelitsha, Cape Town

Start-up capital: R200 000

Annual turnover: R250 000

Making it to the top six on MasterChef SA season 3 honed Mbalo’s skills, tested her creativity and taught her how to deal with pressure. Though she didn’t win, the experience led to her 4 Roomed eKasi Culture food concept, encapsulating the nostalgia and flavours of her youth through its food and name.

“I grew up in the 1980s in a typical four-roomed house in Gugulethu, where four families lived together,” she explains..

Three aspects constitute the business: a mobile food truck, a “casual” dining/take-away venue and the fine-dining locale.

Wherever they’re served, Mbalo transforms eKasi staples into haute cuisine with a twist.

“Depending on the changing set menu, you could have skewers of umleqwa [‘running chicken’, a traditional poultry dish] or snoek croquettes, and panna cotta with lemon verbena for dessert.”

An important facet of the concept is dialogue between diners, which she sees as a way of bridging social and cultural divides, encouraging discussions and finding solutions to South African issues.

“We never know what partnerships may come from individuals meeting here. Making a difference was why my husband, Sam, and I returned from Melkbos to live in Khayelitsha. This isn’t just a corporate business, but something aiming to bring about change,” she says.

Her start-up capital – all of which came from her and Sam’s savings – was used to purchase a pop-up restaurant as well as a vintage Bedford truck, which was converted into a mobile kitchen. “I was still earning a salary as a dental technologist during the week. Our running costs included fuel, electricity and ingredients. Stock wasn’t that expensive,” explains Mbalo, who sources fresh produce from two local food gardens.

On busy weekends, she caters for up to 30, mostly foreign, diners, using nine ad hoc staff members.

However, she’s now focusing exclusively on her casual dining venue, Mphako|Padkos|Mofao, 200m up the road, which opened in May last year.

In fact, there’s hardly anything “casual” about the three-course menu. Mbalo introduces the dishes, and stories about their origins, to diners – with exceptional results. About 70% of her target market live outside Khayelitsha, transcending cultural divides.

“Word-of-mouth recommendations and good reviews on our Facebook page have helped do the marketing for us at Mphako,” she says of the venture, with its annual turnover of R250 000 and three staff members.

However, Mbalo initially struggled to establish her niche. “We opened during the week, incurring staff costs, and locals saw our product as being expensive,” she says. “In quiet times, we made very little profit. I held back on marketing until I could get the right technological tools for managing the various social media platforms.”

Mbalo’s the marketer, cook, concept developer and financial manager of the business – all excellent training for her future plans. “4 Roomed restaurants in Soweto and Port Elizabeth are next,” she says.

Beyond that? “We aim to launch overseas – in Rome, Italy. We know of nothing else like this concept in Europe. Italian and Chinese family restaurants can be found all over the world, so we want to go international too with our township-inspired cuisine.”