Michelin chef, Roger Jones, tells the truly inspiring story of Tongai Joseph Bhufana who has left poverty in Zimbabwe to become one of South Africa’s leading sommeliers. It also demonstrates how for many in South Africa, wine can offer a career path not available in other areas.
Chef Roger Jones on the incredible story of passion and determination that has taken Tongai Joseph Dhafana from poverty and darkness to being one of South Africa’s leading sommeliers.
Having recently been on the judging panel of the UK Sommelier of The Year it highlighted to me the privileges that sommeliers in the UK enjoy. Both from education and the ability to try such a vast array of wines from all over the world to the incredible job opportunities that there are here, from restaurant, hotels and bars to working for fine wine distributors.
However, if you are brought up in an impoverished country like Zimbabwe with little prospect of any work, the journey for many seeking a better life means leaving behind your family and seeking help and prospects in South Africa.
Packed like sardines in a metal train container carriage, with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees the journey from Zimbabwe to the South African border was a treacherous experience, but Tongai Joseph Dhafana together with his wife, Chakamba reached the Golden Land of South Africa and the border town of Musina. They then then camped for two weeks awaiting their work permits as asylum seekers.
Their journey then took them to Johannesburg, where they took refuge in a church, Chakamba being allowed to sleep inside with hundreds of other female refugees whilst Joseph had to do with the steps outside.
They then travelled nearly 1,500km to the Swartland, where he got his first job as a gardener at the Bar Bar Black Sheep Restaurant; with this wage he was then able to afford his own tin shack in the township of Esterhof. He was then soon promoted to washing up in the kitchen, and then the glitzy move of house from the tin shack to a caravan park.
Wine shows the way forward
Eleven months after arriving in South Africa, Joseph then lands his first step into the wine industry as a barman in January 2010. Then on his 29th birthday on March 7 he had his first experience of wine, a MCC Sparkling wine. Although he struggled to drink the whole glass Joseph explained to me that this is when it hit him – the wine bug, how could someone convert grapes into something so special.
This was his guiding light, his calling into the industry. The bright lights of Cape Town soon encouraged him to leave the Ba Ba Black Sheep restaurant, and he spent some time at Aubergine, a fabulous restaurant owned and run by German born chef, Harald Bresselschmidt. Joseph’s wife still works there.
Joseph is now the head sommelier at Cape Town’s finest establishment, La Colombe, an enviable setting with amazing scenery in Constantia, not to mention Scot Kirton’s stunning food or impeccable service and wine list. Not to sit on his laurels Joseph has now moved in to wine making, as well as continuing to work at La Colombe.
In 2014 he bottled his first wine, Fraternity, which is made at the Antebellum Wine Estate in the Swartland. This is a delicious Chenin made from old bush vine, and has notes of ripe peaches and apricots, limes and floral aromas. A classic style of Chenin that is becoming so popular now both in the Cape and in the UK.
I have met Joseph on a few occasions now and it is very apparent how humble he is and how fulfilled he is, however, he still has a matter of reapplying for his work visa in 2017. They are hoping that their son can soon join them too in South Africa.
His memories of his first taste of still wine, a Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon, where he immediately got the “cedar” and “cassis” notes, gives an insight to how gifted he is on tasting wine.
The one objective that he cannot achieve in South Africa is to try wines from other countries, mainly due to the affordability and lack of availability. Unlike the UK there are no daily free tastings, samples or master classes held in his environment.
His ability to improve his wine knowledge outside of Cape wines is therefore very restricted. But this will not deter him from moving upwards. I am also keen to show him an array of Australian and New Zealand wines on my frequent visits to Cape Town.
Joseph is not the only Zimbabwean to star on the Cape Town wine stage, others include Tinashe Nyamudoka (The Test Kitchen), Marlvin (Cape Grace Hotel), Melusi Magodhi (Ellerman House) and South Africa Sommelier of the Year, Lloyd Jusa (The Saxon ) in Johannesburg).
- Roger Jones is Michelin star chef of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn.