I often get asked by people what its like to be a chef. In South Africa our profession isn’t as glamorous as the way its portrayed on television and in movies. Far from it. It often involves 12 hours shifts, lots of interesting swear words and customers who don’t quite appreciate your art.
Let me break it down for you honestly. In SA a Chef de Partie (I’ll explain the various levels of chefdom later) is the most common level for a chef, they earn on average R5000 (about $800) a month. The majority of chefs are not formally trained and start out either as cleaners or as scullery workers. Although this is not a bad thing for job creation it does mean that once a person goes to chef school (which cost me R120 000 for 18 month) they arrive in the hospitality industry only to realise it isn’t what they expected. Its a vicious cycle. South Africans, similar to Americans, are “bulk eaters”, they want to see a huge plate in front of them full of chips and onion rings and the like. Fine dining restaurants charge around 3 times more than that for less food and so to compete and bring in customers they try lower the food cost. The only way to do this is through low staff salaries and wages. Caught in a catch 22 restaurant and hotel owners then do not understand nor appreciate the need to grow the industry by employing better skilled chefs. A LOT of qualified chefs from South Africa then leave the country. Gordon Ramsay’s sous chef for many years was a South African. You’ll find us in restaurants all over the world, because of our work ethic and our high level of training we’re sort after. Its also why its rare to find fully qualified chefs from top chef schools in South Africa
So, you may ask, why did I become a chef? I often ask myself this question sometimes but then I remember sitting in my suit and tie in my early 20’s and dreaming about owning my own restaurant one day. I had yet to elaborate and add in the other complex ideas that would come with time but all I knew is that I wanted to have my own restaurant. As simple as that. In 2008, after 6 years in a comfortable and well paying job in an air conditioned office in Sandton I closed my eyes and typed my “It is with regret that I inform you of…” letter. I followed that up 30 days later with a year of travelling around South Africa and falling in love with my country.
As I was drifting away from town to town it finally dawned on me that I couldn’t be a nomad forever, I had to plant roots somewhere and focus on the next plan. Being as stubborn as I’ve been told I am, I knew I wouldn’t be able to listen to a chef or employee telling me what they want on the menu or how they want to serve it. I decided the only way was for me to become a chef. Simple as that. I did a little Google digging and found a small chef school in Centurion called “Prue Leith Chef’s Academy”. I liked what I saw because unlike the other chef courses that had 3 year study periods they had squeezed their’s into 18 months. I would later come to learn how insane this was but I signed up with a smile at the time.
June 2009 I began the official journey into cheffing. A student again at the age of 26. Little did I know just how wonderfully crazy a journey it would be…