Vanilla Zulu: A Wild and Global Kitchen for Learning

From Zimbabwe to Brisbane, Chef Mel Townsend gives you a taste of the world. Read on and share her amazing culinary adventure.

Creativity 6 min read Nov 10, 2019

With a career spanning for more than half of her lifetime, Zimbabwe born Melanie Townsend is a master chef and culinary teacher who manages to be comfortable teaching in front of a camera as is in the kitchen. With experiences and a background that is second to none, Melanie has traveled all over the world, working both as a chef and an educator.

This week, the esteemed chef, all-around food expert and owner of Vanilla Zulu Culinary Adventures reveals her thoughts, stories on her personal and professional life, as well as her latest culinary ventures. The best part? She is giving away a 15% discount for her 6-Week Chef Skills Course til end of July. Hurry and book! Simply use code WETEACHME at checkout.

Hi Mel! Tell us about your story.

I have always been a very passionate foodie. It’s really exciting what you can do with the ingredients if you just put a different country’s influence. I find the whole food industry really exciting in that it can actually help you escape daily life and in turn add a bit of excitement in your life.

I started cooking at 4 and as an adult, I would pursue the cooking dream by studying to become a chef. I worked as a chef for a few years, but I found time in the kitchen quite limiting, in terms of being a commercial chef. So in 2001, I started my first cooking school in Durban, South Africa where I started teaching people how to cook for their home. I also taught restaurant chefs to keep on trend with the foodie world. Then nine years ago I immigrated to Australia, and three years later, I started my cooking school, Vanilla Zulu Culinary Adventures.

It’s my absolute passion: teaching people, seeing the sparkle in their eyes when I talk of delicious things they can make at home, and obviously, being able to inspire people who are into food means the world to me. I love being with people and I love cooking - it’s the perfect job for me.

Did you struggle at all transitioning from being chef to being a teacher/chef?

No, I think it is my absolute natural talent to teach! I didn’t struggle adapting and it was quite an easy fit for me because I’m willing to share my experiences and ideas. It’s what makes me a good teacher. I love showing them the easiest and proper way to do things, and then watch them sort of grow and do it on their own.

Why are you called Vanilla Zulu?

It’s because I was born and brought up in Africa and I want my roots to be a part of the school. And when I was thinking of a name, I thought of what my favourite ingredient was… well, it was vanilla. I think vanilla is exotic, it’s subtle. It’s one of my go-to’s. When I put the two together, it sounded really good! So, that’s how it became.

How is the reality of running a cooking school differ from typical expectations?

I think with it being my own business, I can adapt very quickly to what the market needs. The difficult part probably is keeping up with the latest trends, like those on TV shows. But we embrace it and we enjoy the challenge. I make it easy for myself by always experiencing, researching and asking my customers what they want.

Another struggle is getting people to realise that when they come to a cooking class, it’s not going to be an intimidating experience. We’re not there to tell them what they don’t know, we’re there to give them a fun and life-changing experience! I always tell students that once they’ve been to a class, they’re going to live happily ever after! It’s a really lovely way to relax, meet new people and take home a whole set of skills that will make your life easier.

You offer many kinds of classes, but what is your most favourite cuisine?

I never, ever can say what my favourite is! It depends on the weather and what my mood is. If it’s cold, then a lovely Thai dish would be good to warm you up from the inside out. If it’s a very hot day, then Mediterranean food is perfect. I’m lucky because I know how to adapt my cooking to the climate and my mood, but I don’t actually have a favourite food that I can say that I would like to have all the time. Although I’ve got a very sweet tooth and a beautiful chocolate dessert is always my favourite (unfortunately) I wish it were a salad, but it’s not!

Who have been your inspirations?

Rather than saying a specific celebrity chef, I think cooks and chefs all around the world who share their love of food is what inspires me the most. I’ve just been to Mexico, and while I was in a market in Guadalajara, I met this wonderful lady who taught me how to make this beautiful dish. Although we didn’t speak the same language, it was a wonderful experience because as she shared with me, food became our language.

Confucius said, “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Are there ever times when you’re burnt out though?

No! A lot of people ask me, “Mel, don’t you get sick of cooking?” and I think throughout my life, cooking has always been an outlet for me. I’ve actually and thankfully always loved to cook. And to me, it’s a way of celebrating life, it’s a way of getting over something difficult, a way of showing someone that I love them. So, I feel very lucky in that I enjoy it and that I have a special flair for it.

What’s the most important thing you want your students to take away from a class?

I want them to have that wonderful sense of accomplishment that they can do the dishes on their own. We want them to have that recognition from their friends and family that they’ve improved. We always say, we’re going to help you be more popular or that your family is going to love you more. It’s very tongue in cheek, but we do say that, because it’s a wonderful achievement when you can put down food in front of people and they go wow or they ask you for the recipe.

If you weren’t at Vanilla Zulu, what do you think would you be doing?

I think I would be on a tropical island, writing my next recipe book. It’s always going to be something with food. I might be a travelling food writer!

What do you see for the future at Vanilla Zulu?

At the moment, we’re in a wonderful growth phase. I’d like to see the business grow to where we’re offering a wider range of classes, as well as training more people to become chefs. At the moment, our biggest seller is our 6-Week Chef Skills course. I’d love to take that further and get it to the next stage.

We’re also working on Vanilla Zulu TV, my own cooking show, which is very exciting. We currently have eight cooking videos on YouTube (and counting). So, if people are looking for inspiration, they can just go straight on to YouTube.

I also have my own product range called Vanilla Zulu Culinary Bling, which I launched to make food more exciting. I’m really a global foodie and I’ve had the opportunity to go to different countries and have a taste of different cuisines. What I found is that you can put a global fair even on basic food to make it more exciting. I’m always turning up the colour, the flavour and the texture. I always say I’m blinging up food, that is why I called my range Culinary Bling, because it’s an extension of how I interpret food. My biggest seller at the moment is the Culinary Spray Tan, which is a spice mix with turmeric, and is perfect for colouring food in a natural and flavoursome way.

And all of these have come from the teaching side of things. I would make spice mixes for my classes, and students would say they would love to buy it from me, but also that they want to know how to use it on their food. So, we did the educational videos to go along with the products. It’s all happened very organically, which is all so exciting!