The everyday influencer: How chefs used their social media accounts to connect

Part of living through lockdown included the ability to create intimacies of isolation. Food and social media played a significant role in this, allowing home cooks the space to find their rhythm while professional chefs invited us into their home kitchens.

The pro: David Higgs

David Higgs, one of South Africa’s best-known chefs and co-owner of two top Johannesburg restaurants, Marble and Saint, adapted early.

His response on the fourth day of lockdown to Cape Town comedian Anne Hirsch’s post on what was inside her fridge kickstarted the #whatsinyourfridge challenge: David and his crew would suggest meals for you to make with the ingredients they saw from your fridge pic.

This quickly evolved into David’s Instagram home-cooking hit videos, which spawned his YouTube channel, Dave’s Kitchen. New content on the channel includes the show Cooking for a Cause, the proceeds of which help feed poor communities in downtown Johannesburg.

“What’s very important to understand is that COVID-19 left our teams and ourselves as the restaurant industry very exposed. People weren’t being looked after. We needed to help. We started off selling my book, Mile 8. Then the videos happened and that’s mainly why they were there. People were suffering and it was nice to be able to assist where I could,” David says.

The charm of his videos are their authenticity. David gives us his true self with his intact humour and quirky fashion sense. He makes simple food with accessible ingredients.

On the lessons of this experience, he says: “Home-cooked food is something that people are really enjoying. We want to make restaurants more homely in all aspects – from the service to the food. We want to be more accessible and price conscious.”

The little communities he formed on Instagram are why he’s carrying on with the videos.

The home cook: Themba Gwejela

Image by Cyril Zuma

During the early days of lockdown, South African comfort food ranging from banana loaf to amagwinya trended weekly on Twitter. Marketing specialist and home cook Themba Gwejela participated in this.

Two years ago, prompted by the response to his food posts, he started an event called Sundays With Gwej – an eight-seater table set up for a three-course meal at his home with wine, beer or cocktail pairings supported by various brands. Lockdown, however, saw him finding his groove in baking. There’s a growing demand for his cakes, which he custom makes for his followers.

“Food has kept me sane. I can’t do my other work, but I have had time to perfect my cooking and baking skills, and I have managed to make a living out of it,” Themba says.

Deep-fried pap balls with mozzarella filling served with a spicy chicken casserole by Themba Gwejela. Image by Cyril Zuma.

Other everyday influencers include attorney and home cook Sisanda Simoyi, whose following grew by 10 000 during lockdown. She cooks based on the premise of making the food in your cupboard extraordinary. She doesn’t chase perfection. She’ll be the first to tell you about the slightly burnt egg on her open English muffin burger. And it seems the more real the experience, the more we are influenced.

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