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Changing the menu: Zandi Mubi does a re-write

It's a demanding, highly-competitive industry with long days, short nights, and high capital requirements to provide top-end product. However, if the zest of a new generation like Zandi Mubi is anything to go by, black women are re-writing many of the rules of the food business.

**By Tatenda Kanengoni, bird story agency**

It is lunch hour in Harare, and the dining room of a popular establishment in the city is filled with restaurateurs invited to an industry event.

Among these is 34-year-old Zandile Mubi, the owner, director, and head chef of Chez Zandi @Lanark. She looks around the room and is met with familiar faces, mostly white and older; nothing much has changed since the last one; she is usually the only woman of colour in her age bracket.

“When I go to these restaurateur lunches, do I see black women who own restaurants? I don’t think so, no,” Mubi says.

“There are a lot of chefs, black women chefs, and many offering event catering services but not at a restaurant [owner level],” she adds.

Growing up with a mother and father in the hospitality industry has inspired Mubi to be where she is today. Her parents run a sports bar called Londoners in Harare and a family restaurant in Bulawayo called 3 Daughters.

Mubi’s childhood memories consist of hearty moments in the kitchen with her mother. However, her interest in pursuing a career in the food industry was piqued during high school's Food and Nutrition class.

Chef Zandile Mubi in her restaurant space Chez Zandi at Lanark in Belgravia in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo : Tatenda Kanengoni

I used to cook with my mom, but I didn’t know I would take it up as a career. It was late in high school when I decided I wanted to be a chef; I was good at it and creative in the kitchen,” Mubi recalls.

After high school, Mubi enrolled in a 4-year degree program in Commercial Cookery and Hospitality management in Melbourne, Australia. After graduation, she planned to stay "Down Under" to gain work experience in the industry while deciding where to make a permanent base but fate intervened and led her back home to Zimbabwe, in 2013.

“Something happened with my visa application, so I was like ‘it’s not meant to be,’ and I decided to return home,” Mubi explains.

She tested the waters back home by throwing herself into the family business and looking for gaps in the market to position herself. The dots started to connect, but not before she got a taste of some of the experiences women encountered in trying to set up in the restaurant space.

“I tried to look for a job, and I was told that a kitchen is a hard place for a woman,” she recalls, in what came as a shock - with a hearty dose of irony.

Without letting the snide remarks deter her, Mubi worked in the kitchen at the family-owned bar, Londoners, while running a catering business called Zandi Loves Food. Then she heard of a restaurant space opening at the French language and culture center, Alliance Française.

Chef Zandile Mubi in her restaurant space Chez Zandi at Lanark in Belgravia in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo : Tatenda Kanengoni

“I applied for a space at the Herbert Chitepo branch, I got shortlisted, got down to the top two, but I didn’t get it; they gave it to someone else. And then, a year later, I applied again, and then I got it,” Mubi says.

“I don’t take no for an answer. If someone says no to me, it pushes me to work harder because I want to prove a point,” she continues.

In 2015, at the age of 27, she finally opened her restaurant, the Chez Zandi Bistro and Wine bar.

“Chez Zandi means house of Zandi; The management at Alliance Francaise was looking for something French to complement the French culture- so that’s how the name came up,” Mubi explains.

Today, Mubi works as the head chef in charge of curating the menu and hiring and training the chefs. The eclectic menu incorporates traditional Zimbabwean dishes, French cuisine and other Western and vegetarian dishes, and beverages. The average cost for a meal at the restaurant is 12 US dollars.

“We have six chefs, so there’s 3 in the kitchen at a time during the week and on the busy days we have 4 in the kitchen,” Mubi says.

Chef Zandile Mubi (middle) and two of her staff members in her restaurant space Chez Zandi at Lanark in Belgravia in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo : Tatenda Kanengoni

To ensure that things are running smoothly in her establishment, Mubi takes on a hands-on approach to her business.

“I think I’m too hands-on; I guess it also motivates my staff because I’m not just sitting there saying do this, do that,” the restaurant owner explains.

“Most of the time, I’m in the kitchen, but my friends say to me, ‘you need to give them space’,” She chuckles.

Because of this and other lessons she has learned from school and her experience in the family business, Chez Zandi began attracting many customers. Business was booming and everything was on the right track - until the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, the Zimbabian government announced a complete shutdown of the hospitality industry for three weeks to manage the spread of the virus that was ravaging many countries, especially in Europe.

Mubi had to rethink her business model to accommodate lockdown measures and restrictions. She came up with a contingency plan.

“[During] the first lockdown, I started cooking from home- I just moved everything from the restaurant, all my foodstuff; I would take orders until 11:30 am because I was cooking by myself and then doing the deliveries as well; It was hectic,” she says.

As lockdown restrictions relaxed, Mubi slowly returned to the swing of things. Having built a loyal client base, she sought a new home for her restaurant in a bigger space along Lanark road in Belgravia, Harare where she is now based.

The new establishment was rebranded Chez Zandi at Lanark, which continues to appeal to both the local and international market, attracting a “mature crowd.”

Chef Zandile Mubi's restaurant space Chez Zandi at Lanark in Belgravia in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo : Tatenda Kanengoni

In her seven-year restaurant business run, Mubi has realized that the restaurant business is not always smooth sailing.

It is often a lonely journey for a black female restaurant owner, with only a small community of fellow black female restaurant owners to lean on. Break it down by age, and the community becomes even smaller.

Mubi draws inspiration from her mother, who has walked a similar path. As a black woman who runs an establishment - a sports bar that typically attracts and caters to a male audience - Mubi’s mother has come face to face with unique challenges that she continues to overcome daily.

Given the round-the-clock demands, including shopping for supplies, managing the restaurant, and preparing meals, Mubi’s breaks are few and far between; a holiday is a luxury.

“I do take holidays sometimes; I just hope that the place doesn’t fall apart while I’m gone,” she chuckles.

In 2016, during the season 2 local Battle of the Chefs competition, Mubi made it to the fourth round. Recently, she has been featured in the Go Getter movement’s Founding 100 book profiling 100 female trailblazers in Zimbabwe.

Mubi does not want to go it alone; she is determined to bring along a generation of female business owners on her journey.

Since opening her restaurant, she has seen a slow but sure increase in the number of female black-owned restaurants opening in Harare. She is excited about this growing change in the industry and hopes that she will soon be seeing more young black female restaurants owners at the industry luncheons in the future.

“I think it’s important for young females to know that it’s possible to run your own [restaurant] business in Zimbabwe, and it doesn’t matter what age you are; there’ll always be obstacles, but you just have to be a go-getter and fight for what you want,” she says firmly.

**bird story agency**


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