Stylist talks to Netflix’s rising star, Tendaiishe Chitima, about Cook Off, Zimbabwe’s burgeoning film industry, and the importance of self-belief.
Netflix’s Cook Off looks, at a first glance, like just another romcom. Telling the tale of Anesu, a single mother with a serious foodie side, the film sees our heroine unexpectedly signed up for a top reality cooking show.
Initially, she’s thrown. Quickly, though, she realises that the TV show is offering her a shot at greatness – and a chance at the better life she’s long been yearning for.
Despite appearances, of course, Cook Off represents so much more than just another romcom. Filmed in 2017 – just months before the fall of Zimbabwe’s despotic ex-president Robert Mugabe – the Netflix hit had a initial cash production budget of just $8,000. Indeed, much of it was shot on the set of Zimbabwe’s version of Top Chef, which airs on public broadcaster ZBC.
“We used the costumes, the set, the cooking pots of Battle Of The Chefs,” said director Tomas Brickhill, referring to a programme now no longer airing, during an interview with The Guardian.
“Without that, there would not have been any movie.”
Despite these setbacks, though, Cook Off went on to screen at several international film festivals, including in the Netherlands, Durban, and United States, winning several awards along the way. And, more importantly, it made history when it became the first-ever Zimbabwean film to air on Netflix.
With this in mind, then, Stylist sat down with Tendaiishe Chitima, the star of Netflix’s record-breaking romcom, to chat about the film, her career so far, and the importance of visibility in cinema.
When did you decide you wanted to become an actor?
I didn’t decide: I was very shy growing up, and it wasn’t until I studied Media & Journalism at the University of Cape Town that I discovered drama. In Zimbabwe, acting is not something we are told we can do as a profession. So I decided to try just one drama course to see if it could teach me some confidence and help build my self-esteem up. I fell in love with acting, and I ended up adding it as a major, but I didn’t tell my parents I wanted to be an actor until after I graduated.
What was it about Cook Off that made you want to get involved?
The script really spoke to me. The main character is a woman with dreams, like me, and she lives in the same town I grew up in. The social dynamics within the script feel very, very familiar, too, as does the idea of having a day job, and a job you dream about. Most of all, I love that Cook Off takes ordinary life in Zimbabwe and portrays it really well. Usually, Zimbabwean films are about politics, or the economy, or people suffering. If we’re really trying to be creative, it will be a drama about family dynamics. But this is a romantic comedy, and one centred around a cooking competition which sees professional chefs cook very fancy dishes! I was so excited about it.
Some consider romantic comedies to be less important, less serious, than other movies. What would you say to these people?
I love watching romcoms, maybe because I’ve been single for so long! But I think there’s a lot of people who love the escape that these films provide from reality. They offer up a fairytale, a reminder that things can get better, a slice of the lighter side of life. I know life is hard, but allowing ourselves to laugh and feel good, to dream about falling in love… that’s OK. It’s OK to feel good. We don’t always have to be serious.
Why are stories like this important? And why is it important to see black women centred in romcoms about achieving your dreams?
Cook Off’s Anesu is a single mother, who fell pregnant at a very young age. She didn’t get to go through the university process, she didn’t get to build the career she wanted. And, in our society, women can end up stuck in a mould of ‘I just have to make ends meet, I just have to do what I must to ensure that my child is provided for’ because, if you don’t have a good support system, you don’t necessarily have the ability to step out and pursue your dreams. There really aren’t enough of these stories, these stories about real people, being told in mainstream media. And seeing someone like yourself on screen can validate who you are, validate your identity.
I believe it’s important for these stories to not just be told, but celebrated. That’s why it’s beautiful that Cook Off is a romantic comedy. It has a happy ending, which means it can serve as inspiration to those watching. It can push them to do what they actually want to do.
People around the world have proven huge fans of Cook Off. Why do you think it’s touched so many, particularly now?
We are going through the most… ugh. The pandemic, the racial tensions being felt all over the world, the struggle of adjusting to the way things are at the moment? It’s been so rough. But love is a universal theme, as is pursuing your dreams and overcoming life’s struggles. And, maybe because Cook Off is a light-hearted film, I feel people appreciate it more. During this period, they needed some hope, a chance to laugh, and a chance to relax. And I’m glad it’s a movie from my home country that’s helping people to do that.
What has it been like becoming a Netflix star overnight?
This is my first feature film, so the support I’ve been receiving on Twitter is so welcome. When you do something for the first time, and you get good feedback, it’s like, ‘Yes! I took a risk with this and it’s working!’ The validation has been amazing. But I’m going to be thinking seriously about how I use my newfound platform going forward. I have a couple of ideas already: my career didn’t happen overnight, so I’ve had time to think about my values and how I hope to communicate them to the people following me.
You’ve called this film a “love letter to Zimbabwe” – what do you mean by this?
As Zimbabweans, we’ve had such a rough time. The economy hasn’t been so good. Politics-wise, it hasn’t been so good. People have struggled. And I know a lot of young people have been finding it hard to get work, let alone pursue their dreams. Building a life in your own home country is important – it gives you a sense of belonging, helps you feel connected with your own people – but so many Zimbabweans have had to leave the country.
Cook Off feels very authentic to the Zimbabwean experience. The authenticity of the people, the places, the challenges we face, are all shown in the film, while Anesu’s story of triumph plays out over this backdrop. So I think the film serves as a love letter to anyone who is struggling in Zimbabwe right now. It’s here to tell them it’s OK, inspire them to keep striving and pushing. To tell them nothing is impossible. Just the fact that Cook Off made it to Netflix shows us that nothing is impossible. I hope its success inspires Zimbabweans, and reminds them that their hard work can pay off.
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On that note, are there any other Zimbabwean actresses you’d like to shine a light on?
There are so many, oh my gosh! There’s Danai Gurira, obviously, who starred in Black Panther and The Walking Dead. Then there’s Sibongile Mlambo, who is based in LA: she’s worked on a couple of Hollywood projects [including Homeland and Lost In Space]. Chipo Chung, who’s in the UK, is probably one of the most prominent actresses to come out of Zimbabwe. And then there’s Chiedza Mhende, who stars in the first South African Netflix Original series, Queen Sono.
Of course, most of the people in Cook Off are film or theatre legends in Zimbabwe, so if people have time to look up the names of the cast, please do: they deserve the spotlight as well.
What does Cook Off mean to you? Where do you want to go next?
To me, this film represents the beginning of greater things ahead. I would love to go on and star in an action film, something fun that pushes my boundaries. I’d also love to work on a true-life drama. A noteworthy story about someone who lived, who did it, who inspired the world.
Is there anyone in particular whose life you’d like to bring to the screen?
Definitely an African woman: that would be dope. Maybe the story of my aunt, actually. She’s a rural girl who fell pregnant early on in life, went through a metamorphosis of discovery, and ended up at Harvard University. Now she’s one of the most successful businesswomen in Zimbabwe!
And finally, the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
To seek out a mentor, particularly one who works in a different field. This will allow them to bring a different perspective to your situation, to encourage you to grow in new areas of your life, to offer honest, unbiased feedback. There’s no substitute for a support system like that. My own mentor has been a great influence: she actually sponsored my Business MA. Which was… it was incredible. It literally changed my life, my perception of money, my idea of what success is.
As an artist, you often look at Instagram as the benchmark for success: what they look like, what they’re wearing. But going to business school allowed me to see a different kind of success. It also allowed me to travel: I went to Poland for six months, which was my first time outside of Africa. And it’s all thanks to her mentorship. Her intentional mentorship. Because it’s important, I think, to formalise something like this. It adds a degree of accountability.
Tendaiishe Chitima stars in Cook Off, which is streaming on Netflix UK now.
Images: Takunda Hove/Netflix/Anel Wessels/Bongani Kumbula
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.