New breed of top black chefs

How many black chefs are there in South Africa? “Not enough,’ says James Parker, the chamber manager of affairs at the tourism, hospitality, sport education and training authority (Theta), a skills development body.

Kenny Ngubane is one of a new breed of top black chefs serving as figures of culinary inspiration to aspirant chefs – young and old. (Image: Tsogo Sun)

Brand South Africa reporter

But South Africa’s uberchef, Bill Gallagher, believes that the cream of the country’s black chefs are rising to the top. “The sky’s the limit for black chefs,’ says Gallagher, the president of the South African Chefs Association and the executive chef of the Southern Sun hotel group.

And cooking maestros such as Kenny Ngubane  from the highbrow Bastion restaurant at the Castle in Kylami, Ivan Willemse from the Mount Nelson, and Keith Frisley from the Sandton Hilton, prove that Gallagher is right.

They are among a new breed of top black chefs serving as figures of culinary inspiration to aspirant chefs – young and old.

All have a good role model in Coach House executive chef Lucas Ndlovu, the man regarded as the big daddy of local chefdom. In the 1950s, when black cooks were confined to working in sculleries, Ndlovu’s talent and hearty love for food ensured that he went from washing dishes in the back kitchens of restaurants to whipping up acclaimed dishes.

Many chefs started as cleaners

Indeed, it appears as if more opportunities are in place for up-and-coming chefs to learn – and practise – their craft. Large hotels and training institutions now run skills transfer programmes, while organisations like Theta seek to promote and recognise education in the hospitality sector by awarding companies that have training programmes in place.

“If you look at black chefs 20 years ago, many were coming into the industry as cleaners or as “scullery boys’ and had to work their way up,’ says Gallagher. “There was a big problem with education and black chefs often had to learn through repetition. But there has been a big change in the industry. There’s been a completely new focus on training. There are more apprenticeships in kitchens, and this was a big forerunner to the success of the industry today.’

Black chefs have also changed their perceptions, says Manfred Muellers, a senior lecturer at the Wits Hotel School in Johannesburg. “In the past, I think black people thought they could only be servants, not cooks. But now black students are more directed towards the hospitality industry and are given the chance to develop. More black students have enrolled in our courses in the past 10 years. But our hotel school has always been open to students of all races.”

Young chefs are proving their passion behind the burners. (Image: SA Tourism)

Theta’s Parker says South Africa lacks skilled chefs – both black and white. A reason for the shortage may be the high bills that culinary schools demand. “It’s a tough industry, and the nature of it makes it expensive. While our training institutions set a high standard of culinary excellence, some cost R30 000 to R70 000, which not everyone can afford.’

There’s no crash course for excellence

“There aren’t really any bursaries available’, Parker continues. “I think a lot of young black chefs believe they don’t have the right contacts to go to a hotel, and say they will work for free for a year in order to learn skills there. With a little training, you could get to a top restaurant – but you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. There’s no crash course for being an excellent chef,’ he says.

Thirty-two-year-old Ngubane started at the bottom. He worked as a busboy at the Carlton Hotel in the 1990s, and was one of four black trainees out of 28 at its hotel school. Now he can recite a CV full up with stints at top-class eateries – the Cape Grace, the Grace in Rosebank, and the Sandton Hilton, among others.

“Sometimes people come to me and tell me that I’m only an executive chef because I’m black, but that’s not true. I haven’t worked where I’ve worked because of my skin colour, but because I work hard and I love food. I’m not here because of my skin colour but because I love what I do.’

To be sure, satisfied customers like Hilary Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Edith Venter love what he does in the kitchen, too.

Twelve years ago, the chefs association started its Horizons training programme, which lists its main ingredient as teaching the basics of cooking to historically disadvantaged chefs. Gallagher says that more than 600 black cooks have participated in the programme.

The chefs association’s Horizons training programme teaches the basics of cooking to historically disadvantaged chefs. (Image: SA Tourism)

They must show hunger for their craft

The association nurtures new talent in a mentorship programme run by the Culinary Olympics squad, Team SA. This national squad comprises South Africa’s master chefs, who head overseas every four years to compete in the global food competition. The four-year programme ensures that seasoned chefs on the national squad transfer their savvy and expertise to the development team, preparing them for the international cooking circuit.

Garth Shnier, the manager of Team SA, says only those chefs who display a hunger and passion for their craft are selected for the development team.

“They have intense training and get to go with the national squad to the Olympics. When they return home, they extend their knowledge at the places they work.’ Shnier says two developing chefs may be ready to represent the country in the IKA Culinary Olympics in Germany next year.

In its first 20 years, Team SA consisted mostly of foreign chefs, but Shnier says the aim now is to make the team more representative of South Africa’s diversity.

And that change is also starting reflect on menus. More and more, local chefs are cooking up indigenous foods, welcoming dishes like morogo, pap and boerewors to the tables of restaurants.

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