Third Culture Experiment knows what’s good – delectable food and captivating conversation. Combine this with art and wine and you’ve got a combination that’s pleasing on the palette and intriguing to the eyes. In Cape Town art and alcohol are easier to find than a Google search, but connecting with people can be a trickier undertaking. We know they’re everywhere and friendly for the most part, but to make the kind of friends you can jol with and not just greet unexpectedly on a night out with a “Ja, we should have a drink sometime” takes time and effort.
This is where Nobhongo Gxolo’s labour of love fills the gap. This month at the Stevenson gallery, Third Culture Experiment celebrated two years of forging new friendships and enjoying culinary delights. A three course meal, wine tasting, stand-up comedy and a gallery tour made for an awesome way to spend a Saturday afternoon and meet new people.
What inspired you to start the Third Culture Experiment?
Third Culture Experiment was the result of a number of things coming together; an article I read which spoke to the concept of food clubs, overhearing Mom sharing the thought that my sister and I should consider getting into the business of food, and a good friend attending an event in Woodstock where guests were privy to viewing some artwork while enjoying a three-course meal. She came back to our flat raving about the creamy mussel soup starter. Later a mutual friend’s flatmate invited me to dinner where she prepared chicken in a way I hadn’t tasted it before. And after that a bunch of friends and I were sitting at a cafe on Kloof Street, the table kept growing as more people we knew took up seats. The friend who’d attended the Woodstock gig pointed across the table saying something along the lines of “That’s Woodstock girl” and I remember thinking, That’s chicken girl. The idea had been percolating but hadn’t yet become concrete. I approached Hlumela Matika and we had a meeting some days later. That was the beginning.
Is there any significance behind the name?
I’m a freelance writer by day. Two years ago, I was working from the Marie Claire office and I interviewed a woman who referred to herself as a Third Culture Kid (TCK). Unfamiliar with the term I looked it up and found the definition: “A term used to refer to children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their development years.” I figured that living in SA, in CT, a lot of our generation, by extrapolation, qualifies as TCKs. A lot of us migrate to and live in spaces that are not home where we are exposed to humans from different backgrounds and their various cultures.
The Experiment is twofold. Firstly, there’s the food element. Without any official culinary experience a lot of time is invested in finding and creating dishes, preparing food, playing around with recipes and techniques to find a best practice that suits, and equally importantly – that the guests will enjoy. Secondly, there’s the social experiment. Cape Town doesn’t seem to offer a lot of spaces where people can meet each other and build new connections without it being totally awkward. The group of humans we try to congregate come from different backgrounds, and so have different things to offer the conversation. Each event we’ve hosted has resulted in a different experience defined, of course, by the mix of people which happens to be occupying the seats at each occasion. Guests enjoy our signature homemade ginger beer, a three course meal, and we sit back.
TCE has been in existence for two years. How has it grown since you first started?
I approached Hlumela with the idea two years ago and she was keen to get involved. So we invited our friends to a dinner which we’d prepped. We each made a loss of R89.53, or there about. After clean up, we also went to bed at 4am. We had a post-mortem and even though we’d made a loss and were exhausted, we decided to do it again. So we did. We didn’t make a loss the next time around. We slept just after midnight.
Six months later, Hlumela was offered an opportunity she couldn’t resist, an opportunity that would be invaluable to her career in film, so she hung her Third Culture Experiment hat. I’ve been keeping the Experiments going since with the help of an incredibly dedicated family and supportive friends.
There have been 20 events since the first in 2014. We’ve held the event at Spier, Babylonstoren and Stevenson Gallery. We’ve collaborated with Moreson Wines, Hartenberg Wines and Amarula. We’ve also hosted an event in Jo’burg. Thanks to word of mouth we’ve provided nourishment at the Digital Design Tournament, at a vintage fest with Itsatextile, as well as for local DJ Waxon’s second birthday party. We’ve also pulled off some catering gigs; a 30th birthday party, a graduation lunch, a farewell dinner, and artist Mohau Modisakeng’s studio opening.
What have been some of the trials and triumphs so far?
Preparing and then creating a three-course meal for twenty guests with one set of hands is a trying task. The night before is often plagued with some level of anxiety. Wondering if the event will go well, if the guests will find it valuable, if they’ll enjoy the food – enjoy each other. And then there’s clean up. Each event ends with sore feet, throbbing ankles, the small of my back aches and just for control my body may toss in a headache. It’s physically gruelling.
Fortunately, the thing that makes it worthwhile, is how open people are to the idea. Guests have shared really positive responses that have been unexpected but very encouraging. They’re grateful for the event. It means something significant to them.
At every gathering the menu is different. Tell us about the process behind the selecting and preparing this.
I have friends and family who are foodies, there are also some chefs in the mix. My sister is an amazing cook; soul food that incites nostalgia for home. The level of deliciousness that feels like it’ll induce instant cholesterol. I grew up with my mom cooking and baking – family meals are a good memory. My brother’s a Biokineticist which translates to his having experience when it comes to nutrition and putting meal plans together. So, I spend a lot of time in conversation – getting their thoughts and opinions on the menus I come up with. I spend time watching cooking shows, YouTubing, going through recipes and doing research on food practices and preparation techniques.
I consider the time of year; so what’s in season. If it’s winter I’d likely be looking at something warm and filling; dessert that’s delicious and gooey. Whereas in summer, I’d look at something more light and fresh; homemade ice cream or sorbet for instance. I try to challenge myself – experiment and see what chemistry I can pull off in the kitchen.
Cape Town can be a very cliquey city. In what ways has Third Culture Experiment tried to encourage people to step out of their comfort zones?
Yes, it really can be, that’s precisely one of the reasons we started the Experiment. I did my undergrad in Cape Town then left for four years. On my return I literally called up the friends I’d known before who still lived in the city to meet up for lunch. I wanted to see if we could still connect, all in the selfish attempt to help me acclimatise to the city a little easier. Hlumela on the other hand moved to the Mother City for work so she’d had some years to build her friendships. We both kept running into conversations with humans who were new to the city and were struggling with making new connections. So we created a space where they could, while enjoying a three-course meal.
The most recent TCE lunch took place at Stevenson. What made you choose this venue and how do you think it contributes to the gathering?
Due to my work as a writer, I wrote a review of Moshekwa Langa’s Ellipses which was exhibited at Stevenson Gallery. I established a relationship with a representative of the space. I’ve wanted to hold an Experiment at a gallery for a long while and Stevenson is a dope space. I wanted to celebrate Third Culture Experiment turning two with something special. And there’s something about the combo of food, art, and wine (Môreson Wines came through to do a tasting at the event), and of course Kwanda Ndoda’s comedy that just seemed like a win win. The Quiet Violence of Dreams referencing the novel of the same name by Sello K Duiker is currently being exhibited at the gallery, and I thought it would be a great for guests to get this all-round experience.
What has surprised you most about this labour of love?
Being in the kitchen has become meditation. It’s my default space almost regardless of the emotional state I’m in; exhilarated, anxious, excited, broken. I can go and play around with spices; put some chilli flakes in my mocha; make a sweet olive ice-cream, make sundried tomatoes and keep half intact to put on sandwiches or stuff into a grilled chicken while blending the rest into a roasted tomato sauce that can act as a base in a stew. Sometimes, the flavour combinations are pleasantly surprising and other times, well, they earn me side eyes.
What do you hope attendees will take away from the experience?
I want people to make real connections. This space is not as rigid and formal as how networking sessions present themselves. I want the conversations they have to make them laugh, leave them intrigued, challenged. I want them to be shifted in some way. I’d like the experience to be memorable and worthwhile. And if nothing else, I’d like them to come back for the food.
What are your plans for the future of Third Culture Experiment?
Long term: The food club is still a toddler so there are still some growing pains ahead. I’d like for it to come together more seamlessly. I’d love to get more new guests coming on board to experience the offering. I’d love a consistent venue to work from. I’d love to do a lot more collaborations with all sorts including juice and coffee brands, cheese and olive farms, the lot. I’m keen to branch out with regards to what Third Culture Experiment is and what it can offer. I want it to be a formidable brand in food culture.