THE Capetonian who established and ran two cookery schools, managed several campus and hostel cafeterias and has catered for countless events and written almost 20 cookery books didn’t set out to be either a chef or a writer. In fact, while Shanaaz Parker — whose book, Shanaaz’s Real Food: Aromatic Fusion, was published in May — concedes she’s always loved eating, she didn’t even enjoy cooking as a youngster.
"I certainly spent a lot of time in the kitchen in our home in Woodstock watching my mother cook when I was child," she says. "And I remember asking her why she was doing certain things and combining various ingredients. I was curious and loved the results of cooking but was not at all keen on actually doing it myself."
Parker’s parents were in the "retail and rag trade" and she followed their tradition. But in the mid-1990s, when she was running a baby-clothing business, one of her brothers asked if she would take on the smaller, more exclusive side of his catering business.
"Both my brothers were in the catering and restaurant business and demand for their services had grown so much that they couldn’t handle it all. One asked me if I’d consider taking on the smaller functions, which I agreed to do."
Before long, Parker had established a reputation as a competent chef, caterer and businesswoman and was approached by the Western Cape education department to provide catering for the cafeterias and hostels at six of the its technical campuses in and around Cape Town. At this point, she decided it was time to formalise her career and studied for an advanced diploma in culinary arts: "In retrospect, it all came together perfectly. By the time I’d qualified, I had plenty of hands-on experience in the kitchen and so, when the department asked me to establish a cooking school at the Athlone Technical College, I had both the practical knowledge and appropriate qualification."
For the next eight years, Parker was head of department of the College of Cape Town School of Cooking. She was given the task of setting up the school, writing the curriculum and implementing the teaching. With keen foresight, she negotiated a deal whereby she’d retain the rights to the material (including recipes) she developed. She also began writing about food for local newspapers and talking about it on the radio. The Shanaaz Parker brand evolved quickly and when, in 2005, she decided to compile and self-publish her first recipe book, Indulge, she boldly printed 10,000 copies — and sold them all.
"By that time, I was well-known in food circles and that, together with some energetic marketing (in addition to her culinary diploma, Parker also has a certificate in marketing management), helped get the book out there. Indulge is a collection of the most popular and successful recipes made over and again at the school. They’d been tested endlessly and I was confident about them. It was a great way to break into publishing."
She produced her second book, Fusion, a year later. This time, the recipes were those she had "grown up with". It, too, became a bestseller.
"My cooking and books are all halaal but one of the reasons they’re successful is that they appeal to everyone. My methods are nonfussy and many of the ingredients are the kind of items most people already have in their cupboards. And, probably as a result of my experience as a teacher, my writing is concise and recipes easy to follow."
Parker, who, by this time, had started her own cookery school, the Shanaaz Parker Culinary Academy, used the profits generated by her first two books to sponsor people from her community who couldn’t afford the costs of travel to go on hajj.
When she published her next two books, Innovative and Flavor’s, Parker built a house in Rylands, which she turned into a halaal residence for students.
"I noticed while teaching how difficult it was for Muslim students living away from home to find accommodation that is halaal. So, when I could afford it, I established a halaal residence for 10 students. I live and work here too. We don’t accept only Muslim students but whoever lodges here knows that, first and foremost, it’s a halaal residence."
Fusion, Indulge, Innovative and Flavor’s were updated and republished as a set of four by Jonathan Ball Publishers last year. Parker also published eight shorter booklets, some of which were written in conjunction with brands such as Pick n Pay and Moir’s. She recently launched an e-magazine, titled Fusion Food and Home.
Shanaaz’s Real Food: Aromatic Fusion was the first book she has entrusted entirely to a publisher.
"It was very difficult to do initially," she laughs. "I’m used to being in total control. But I like the outcome and am very proud of it."
The new book, she says, takes a fresh look at some traditional recipes using ingredients that are in vogue at the moment: "Younger generations are much more adventurous and sophisticated than we were. They eat out a great deal more and want to experiment with different ingredients. Mascarpone, for example, is fashionable these days, so I incorporated it into recipes such as the one for pasta with steak and butternut."
Parker is already working on another cookbook. She says there’s still research to be done for it, some of which will be done during a trip to India in September.
"My parents came to South Africa from India after an arranged marriage. Their families originate from different villages near Bombay. I’d always planned to write an Indian cookbook and this one will examine what influenced my mother’s cooking. I’m going to go back to the villages and to trace the styles, dishes and ingredients I grew up with."
"I also want to experiment with techniques I learned from my mother and others I hope to find in India. I want to know how they originated and how they affect flavours. This is not something that can be rushed. It’s very precious to me so I need to be thorough and take as long as required to get it right."
Her mother, she concedes, would be proud of the former reluctant chef — and probably more than a little surprised.