Herdboy, waiter, head chef

22 June 2006

In Shadrack Sihlangu’s first week as a trainee chef, he was told to “take some garlic .” and he didn’t know what it was. Sent to fetch fresh ginger, all he could think of were ginger biscuits.

He was a source of great amusement to the kitchen staff. “The other chefs were laughing,” he says, “but Yvonne Short and Dumi Ndlovu didn’t. And I learned.”

Short was operations manager at the Londolozi game lodge in Mpumalanga and the famous Ndlovu was head chef.

Sihlangu, who must have seemed unpromising material to his peers, is now a head chef himself. He rules the kitchen at the super-luxurious, all-suite Little Bush Camp – the fourth and newest lodge of Londolozi’s equally famous neighbour, Sabi Sabi.

Herdboy, schoolboy
He did not set out to be a chef. In fact, growing up in the small rural village of Somerset Trust, he had no particular goals at all, beyond getting his matric. But after what he went through to get to high school, matric was easy.

Throughout his primary schooling, he had to tend his father’s extensive goat and cattle herd for half the week, sharing the chore with his older brother, Sandros. One week he would herd for three days and attend school for two; the next week, it would be reversed.

Both brothers made it to high school and both got their matric. Sandros became a game ranger at Londolozi, and Shadrack went to work as a quality controller for a company that made shade cloth. But five years of checking for flaws were enough. His brother suggested that Shadrack join him and, in 1992, young Sihlangu got a job as a waiter.

It wasn’t long before he noticed that one of the chefs was about his age. “I looked at him and thought, ‘How can he do a difficult thing like that?’,” he recalls. “I asked Yvonne Short and she said, ‘You’re welcome to come into the kitchen.’ I was still growing up, so I was learning quickly.”

The Londolozi kitchen
He was started on cheese twists and courgette fritters – “small things. They took me step by step.” Trained by Ndlovu, who had him peeling potatoes and onions, and assembling ingredients for potjiekos, he watched how to cook red meat and white meat, and which sauces go with which kind of meat.

Although Sihlangu knew nothing about cooking when he came into the Londolozi kitchen, the encouragement he received to try it was “part and parcel of our policy,” says Short, who has recently joined Pick ‘n Pay. “We employed rural people. You look for the right attitude, the sparkle in the eye, a quick warm smile, and then you go from there.

“He was fantastic to work with,” Short adds. “Most chefs stay in the kitchen and never see people enjoying the food. But with Shadrack, he did the food in front of the guests. When you’re cooking in front of guests you become more involved, you take more responsibility.”

Sihlangu gave a modest spin to his interaction to the guests. He says he would describe what was in the potjiekos, what was in the salad, what people liked and disliked. “Some people are not eating anchovies or garlic,” he explains.

But there was a great deal more to it. “He had a real sense of hospitality,” says Short. “The joy of a happy satisfied guest having just enjoyed yummy food in front of a roaring fire under the stars is inspiring and rewarding.”

In 1994, Sihlangu moved to Lodolozi’s Tombela lodge as chef de partie, working under head chef July Ngwenya. When Ngwenya resigned in 1999, Sihlangu was promoted to his position. He stayed there until 2002, when he became assistant head chef at a lodge called Selati, owned by Sabi Sabi.

Head chef
In March this year, he was made head chef at a small guest lodge newly acquired by Sabi Sabi. And when he walked into the empty kitchen, it was, in a way, a homecoming. The lodge was Tombela, now renamed Little Bush Camp.

The job was a major challenge. “There was nothing in the kitchen,” Sihlangu says. “There was no garden. We had to renew everything.” And they had to do it quickly, because guests were arriving soon.

There are two chefs de partie working with Sihlangu in his spotless kitchen, and all of them do everything. There is quite a lot to do: three sumptuous meals a day, plus wake-up pastries before the morning and afternoon game drives and snacks for sundowners in the bush. Both the luncheon and dinner menus must include one dish of red meat and one of white. Everything is made in the kitchen, including muesli and rusks, cakes, biscuits, ice cream.

Cooking game
There is quite a lot of game on the menu, but it all comes from a supplier. When Sihlangu began back in the ’90s, “we were allowed to shoot impala, but we’re not allowed to shoot anymore. The guests are here to see the animals,” he points out, and not to eat them – or at least, not the animals they’ve been viewing from the back of an extended open Land Rover.

Here’s how he does game: he marinates it in soy sauce, paprika, salt and pepper, a little bit of olive oil “and a drop of lemon juice, because it mustn’t taste like an animal. You marinate it for four to five hours. And you must serve it rare or medium rare. The more you cook game, the harder it becomes.”

What he most likes to prepare is fillet – of impala, ostrich or beef. “It gives me results,” he says. And he also enjoys baking various flavours of creme caramel: vanilla, banana, orange. “It looks nice,” he says. “And it tastes nice.”

And what does he like best to eat? “Roast chicken and chips – I can eat it for 30 days a month,” he says.

Family
It seems an idyllic situation, head chef in an exclusive game lodge not far from his home, but there is a downside. His wife, Lindiwe Gumede, stayed in the kitchen at Selati when he moved to Little Bush Camp, but it’s not far by Land Rover.

Somerset Trust, however, is 15 kilometres away, and they can only get there about once a month to see their three daughters, who stay in the family home with a housekeeper. “It’s hard to live away from the children,” he says, “especially as my eldest is in Grade 12 and starting to look at the boys. I don’t like that, but I’m at a distance.”

The two older girls, Wendy and Adelaide, aren’t much interested in kitchens, but six-year-old Nandi is fascinated. “She is going to be a chef. I just feel it in my heart,” he says. “She really likes what I’m doing. When I have a chef’s hat on my head, she loves it a lot. And when I’m making chips in the kitchen, she likes it.

“I think a star is born.”

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