Chef finds delight in culinary pursuits

Stephen Mendez is the head chef at On19 at the Westin.

The city centre is filled with opportunities for people working in the food industry. These are the words of Stephen Mendez, the head chef at On19 restaurant at the Westin Hotel.

“There are lots of new eateries popping up everywhere. The food scene in the city is getting more interesting by the day.”

Stephen grew up in Westridge, Mitchell’s Plain, and then moved to Parow at a young age. Growing up, he remembers always being in the kitchen.

“In households, mothers are mostly the ones to cook, but in my home, my father used to cook and I took a liking to that.

“Every family gathering, Sunday lunch or even just supper, it was the two of us in the kitchen.”

Stephen studied to become a chef at Northlink College, finishing in 2008.

“I didn’t have a hard time finding a job but I think that’s because it was pure passion. The salary didn’t matter at the time.”

His first job as a chef was at the Cape Grace Hotel. Although it was intimidating, he treated it as part of his journey.

“There were others who were also fresh out of school, and you soon realise that you’re surrounded by like-minded people who share the same passion, and you have to open yourself up to learning and enjoying the experience.”

After spending two years at the Cape Grace, Stephen left in search of something else. “At hotels, there are a lot of aspects, such as the restaurant, hotel dining and in-dining. While it was a great experience, I wanted to work with more refined food, which was what restaurants did at the time.”

While searching for a job, Stephen found himself back at a hotel, this time the Mount Nelson. “This experience was a little different. I worked at the restaurant, so my focus was there. I learnt a lot working with chef Rudi Liebenberg.”

After a year, he received an opportunity to work in the Winelands when De Grendel Wine Estate started a restaurant. “I grew a lot at this restaurant because as chefs we had the freedom to explore with food. We also had the opportunity to interact with guests and get feedback about the dishes.”

Stephen’s claim to fame was when he and his colleague at the time took part in the Ultimate Braai Master, a South African outdoor cooking challenge, and won. “This did a lot for my career. It really got my name out there.

“It was really challenging. We travelled around Africa and cooked food outdoors, basically just braaied. But we did it – we won. And with our cash prize of R500 000, we decided to buy La Vierge restaurant in Hermanus.”

He then moved to Hermanus to run the business. “We started in season and it went very well, but then we didn’t do so well. It’s very seasonal in Hermanus.”

He then sold his business to his partner because he couldn’t take the risk as he had a baby on the way.

“It was a learning curve though, and I learnt a lot about being an entrepreneur. Another reason that I left is that I wanted to specialise in fine dining – that’s my craft.”

Stephen found himself back in the city centre, this time at Mondale in the Waterfront, where he worked as head chef.

“This was in line for the goals I had for myself – to become a head chef. Mondale was bistro-style but I had learnt so much from the role. I had a big team so I learnt management skills. I wasn’t cooking a lot, but I walked away a better manager. I also re-learnt administration – I’ve only ever done this at college. I was fully equipped for my next challenge.”

Now at the Westin’s flagship restaurant, On19, Stephen is back in the kitchen, as well as managing staff. “I’m cooking the kind of food that I love – refined cooking.”

He said he loves experimenting with old classics, such as lamb bredie – taking it apart, using the flavour profiles then turning it into fine dining. And even though he loves fine-dining, Stephen admits he loves eating a good burger.

“At Mondale, they had a burger bar, and it was really good.”