Culinary graduates steak their claim

[Image] Red hot in the kitchen: Chef Oriel Mbowane,
wearing apron, shows the students
how it’s done.

[Image] The fourth group of students graduated
from the Singita School of Cooking in April.
(Images: Singita)

Pam Richardson
Singita community development manager
+27 21 683 3424

Lyndon Jaftha

The Singita group of game reserves and lodges was built with the dream of protecting and preserving the wildlife in South Africa’s eastern region, known as the lowveld.

This is where visitors will find world-famous destinations such as the Kruger National Park, and the Sabi Sand Reserve.

Today, Singita (Shangaan, meaning “place of miracles”) maintains that dream, and one of its priorities is to reach out to the local community with development and support initiatives. The Singita School of Cooking is one of those initiatives.

Kurt Abrahams, formerly the senior sous-chef (second in command in the kitchen) at Singita’s Sweni Lodge in the south-central Kruger Park, and Jason Trollip, former GM of Singita Kruger Park, are the men behind this inspiring community project.

Training is conducted in-house at Shishangaan, an old military base in the Kruger Park, which is now the staff village, housing about 100 people. By building onto an existing footprint, Singita has managed to minimise damage to the surrounding environment.

Each course provides between six to nine lucky students with a sponsorship and the chance to forge a dream career. The fifth group of students commenced their training in April 2012, while the previous group graduated in the same month.

All graduates leave with a level four certificate, as stipulated by the National Qualifications Framework, in professional cookery.

Singita Kruger Park’s GM Caroline Burke said, “In remote, rural areas equipping even one person with a good job and sound prospects, has a burgeoning effect on members of their immediate family, as well as the broader community.”

Training provides not only an income, she added, but the trainees themselves provide a source of inspiration to their peers.

“At Singita we are very proud to be able to make this contribution to the development of people in the regions where we operate,” said Burke.

Singita benefits too, as it now has a continually renewing pool of well-trained, talented young chefs with which to staff its lodges.

Skills transfer and development

The programme is advertised via the local community development forum, and the Mahlamba-Ndlopfu forum, which represents 12 villages in the area. These forums reach students from the nearby Bushbuckridge district, one of eight municipalities in the Kruger Park’s vicinity.

Those wanting to apply need to meet criteria, which includes a matric certificate and, of course, a genuine interest in cooking The Singita staff interview those who have applied and a shortlist is created. Those on the shortlist are transported to Singita for a cook-off to assess their basic skill level, and to complete written tests and interviews.

From there, the final selection is made and the chosen students are registered on an official learnership status. They receive equipment and a uniform, as well as a monthly stipend while they learn.

The programme runs full-time and gives students comprehensive theoretical and practical training in skills such as preparation, making of sauces and stocks, choosing the right cut, and more.

It also aims at building essential business skills such as computer knowledge, interviewing skills, confidence and improved spoken English.

The aspirant chefs learn their trade under Oriel Mbowane, Singita’s chef skills developer, who is assisted by visiting chefs from other Singita lodges.

On completion of the course, the young graduates are given the opportunity to apply for a commis chef position in a kitchen at any of the Singita lodges, meaning they will work as a junior chef under a chef de partie.

Others are assisted in securing entry level positions in other lodges in the Kruger Park. The reserve currently employs 10 of Singita’s qualified students, while eight others are pursuing careers as chefs in other hotel and lodge kitchens in the park.

Two Singita graduates, Lameck Mnisi and Mavis Mongoe – described by Singita staff as one of the “shining talents” of the school – have since been promoted to demi-chefs de partie.

Successful community initiative

Since its inception in 2007, the initiative has seen 34 students graduate, including those from the fifth programme. Because of its success, the course has been increased to 18 months, and the costs of sponsoring a student has increased to R75 000 (US$9 200).

The Singita Community Development Trust underwrites the costs incurred. Some of the students are sponsored by guests at the Singita Game Reserve, while others are granted funding through the government’s support of learnership programmes.

Sponsors are kept in contact with the students and receive progress reports.

Singita Game Reserve dates back to a piece of land bought in 1925. It now consists of nine lodges – five in South Africa, three in Tanzania, and one in Zimbabwe. Here the company is working with the Grumeti Community and Wildlife Fund on a black rhino relocation project.

Its corporate social responsibility focus is based on four key areas – education, where it supports local preschools and primary schools; supporting local enterprises; conservation education amongst young people; and supply of potable water.