One can be forgiven for wondering what role destiny might have played in a little-known chef from the townships ending up among Florida’s rich and famous. 

That is Florida in the States. 

When a colleague nicknamed him “Sunshine” many moons ago, it was for his humble nature and winning smile – his gentle nature camouflaging a burning desire to stand out among the cooking crowd. 

At the time, few would have believed that it was written in the stars for him live and work in the land of the Everglades, Miami Dolphins and a notorious former president. 

Destiny or not, Mthobeli Ndaleni has earned his stripes in the kitchen. 

The South African worked alongside US celebrity, Chef Francisco, and cooked for America’s basketball and golfing royalty at venues as prestigious as The Club in Admirals Cove in the Sunshine State and the Chicago Lake Golf Club. 

The executive sous chef from Kwazakhele in Gqeberha returned to his culinary roots – the Radisson Blu, Port Elizabeth, in 2020 following the global Covid-19 outbreak. 

It was here where he cut his teeth in the hospitality industry as a kitchen porter half a lifetime ago. 

His international experience, blended with an exemplary record during his first stint at the hotel, prompted general manager Elmarie Fritz to pick up the phone and convince him to make a comeback. 

Thirteen years after he first set foot in the hotel to bus tables, his journey to cooking excellence had come full circle. 

He recalled trying to learn everything he could, back then even taking notes and spending his down time watching the Food Network. 

“The more I saw, the more the cooking bug bit me,” the 33-year-old, who recently won the Best Chef category at Nelson Mandela Bay’s fifth annual Hospitality Awards & Gala,” confessed. 

“After a year as a porter, I knew I wanted more, so I approached the executive chef at the time and told him I wanted to become a chef.” 

Wanting things and getting them are two different things. Ndaleni will never forget having to cook for the hotel staff to prove he had what it took in the kitchen. 

Thankfully, he passed with flying colours and, thanks to the support of his colleagues, went on to study at the prestigious Christina Martin Culinary Art Studio in Plettenberg Bay. 

Here he was introduced to the finer points of gourmet cooking, while discovering new breads, pastries and desserts as well as brushing up on his wine-pairing skills. 

Ndaleni believes attitude and hunger are essential ingredients in the cooking game – much like cinnamon and sugar on a Proudly South African pancake. 

These attributes clearly shone through in an online CV he compiled while job-hunting in Florida, as he soon was granted an interview for the Admirals Cove job. 

“I was so nervous, but excited. After that interview, a whole new world opened to me,” he said. 

Having spent the best part of a decade in the States, it was almost inevitable that he would be influenced by its flavours. He has developed quite a penchant for American-style barbecue and Mexican food. 

However, his signature dish, grilled scallops with vegetable ragout, which patrons can sample at the Radisson, identifies who he is as a chef. 

A father to two boys, Ndaleni said the award had boosted his morale and reminded him about the value of hard work. 

“I have an obligation to continue mentoring the next generation of chefs and to show appreciation for the contributions made by others. 

“You should always remain respectful and committed to what you want. Stay disciplined and let food be your art.”