#Entrepreneurs: Making a meal out of teaching others to cook

Some may find the heat in the kitchen too much to handle, but enterprising chef Zanele van Zyl has built her business on it.

Van Zyl, 38, has positioned herself as a go-to guide for a large number of food enthusiasts who attend her cooking classes, in what has grown into a successful venture.

"These days food is a lifestyle," says Van Zyl, who recently published her debut book: Cooking with Zanele: Simply Delicious Quick Meals.

"Mine is a business built on passion. That makes it easy for me to confront the challenges that come with starting a business. 

"I am passionate about the food industry and teaching other people."

Rising star

Van Zyl’s journey to become one of the country’s fastest-rising chefs began six years ago, after she quit her career in the IT sector to take up formal training in culinary arts.

What followed was a taste bud-teasing business that saw her giving cooking classes to legions of food enthusiasts eager to learn new tricks about food preparation.

She swapped her former duties of diagnosing computer problems for a chef’s jacket, in a saturated industry that requires the ability to carve yourself a niche market.

The Port Elizabeth-based entrepreneur, who recently relocated from Johannesburg, says she did just that. She identified a gap in the market: a growing demand for homemade, nutritious dishes that are easy to make and make cooking exciting.

"Many people are beginning to appreciate the art of making good meals from scratch and breaking away from the ordinary," she says.

'Social media made me'

Van Zyl, who counts British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver as her main inspiration, opted not to look for employment in the food industry after finishing her studies at culinary school in 2017. Instead, she chose to impart her knowledge to others and build her business from there.

Van Zyl warns that as with any other business, financial losses in the food industry are inevitable and that you must be prepared to lose money.

"I started giving cooking classes before I even qualified as a chef. I incurred a loss for my first class which was held in Johannesburg," she said.

"You must know that it may take time to break even."

With over 35 000 followers on Instagram and even more on Facebook, Van Zyl says she can never discount the role of social media in helping build her name in the industry and positioning her brand.

"Social media is a powerful tool for people who are starting a business, as it gives you the power to market yourself, in the absence of budget and strong financial backing," she says. "Social media made me."

Growth strategy

Van Zyl’s debut self-published book, which will officially be launched later this month, is a combination of the dishes she has been demonstrating in her cooking classes, alongside some classics like rack of lamb, which she says is her favourite meal to prepare. 

"Publishing the book was part of my growth strategy, and sharing all the dishes that I have been teaching people during my classes. 

"The support has been overwhelming," she says.

Van Zyl has the following tips for budding entrepreneurs:

  • Be prepared to fund the business out of your own pocket and incur losses.
  • Take time to work on your brand.
  • Be transparent with prices.
  • Respect your clients.
  • Know your target market.

Van Zyl's long-term goal is to open her own cooking studio, where she could offer classes more regularly and extend her services to children's classes.

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