So in 2009 the journey into the beautifully insane world of cheffing began. (Cheffing is not an official word but all chefs use it…its just one of many words chefs have made up. Another is Chefs-Ass but I’ll leave that one up to your imagination for now).
As I mentioned before, I found Prue Leith Chefs Academy online through Google. I knew nothing about chef academies or the hospitality world before that. When signing up I was requested to send a one page letter saying why I want to be a chef, I had to dig up my 7 year old matric certificate, I also had to go to the academy to do a blind tasting of 6 different things and describe (guess) what they were. For a dude coming out of a relatively snobbish corporate position to explaining your life dreams to a stranger so they would let you into their school was a bit of a strange experience. Well my guessing of the taste items and my dream story were bought and I was accepted into the expensive world of Prue Leith Chef Academy…R70 000 deposit later. (Yes I keep mentioning the fees so as to give you an idea of what a kid from a township would need to do to even try studying at a top chef school. The fees are painful)
Before we could even start studying we had an orientation day…with parents invited. Mommies and daddies with their little 19 and 20year olds whilst I sat there, all of 26years old, with my mom and dad laughing away at my embarrassment. After some scones and tea and a few words the folks were asked to vacate the premises and let their kiddies free into the madness that we were to endure for a year and a half. We were handed our uniforms and loads of files…and our chef knives. I cannot explain to you the excitement of trying on that chef uniform and holding those chef knives. Yeah sure I didn’t know what to do with the knives but just to say “this is my chef knife bag” when someone asks you what the hell you’re holding was uber cool.
For the first 2-3 weeks we were just basically learning the ropes. We spent everyday in a pre-fab classroom doing theory and learning about the many ways we were going to cut our fingers and how insane we were to want to be chefs. We were basically told to not expect to be Jamie Oliver and that the coming 6 months were going to hell.
As I mentioned above, Prue Leith Chef’s Academy has taken what is normally a 3 year diploma and squeezed it into 18 months. We would start at 8am every morning (we were not allowed to be late, if you were even 10mins late you were sent home and marked as absent) and the day would often end at 11pm. We had to have clean Birkenstock’s chef shoes, be clean shaven, nails cut, hair in a net or trimmed and with a skull cap on, aprons at all times, 2 clean dish clothes, chef uniform clean, chef pants tailored and not dragging on the floor, knives and your recipe book. If any one of these things was not present or to the chef on duty’s liking you were sent home and marked absent. In the 18 months of being there you only had 10 days where u could be marked absent, if you exceeded these you would fail the course. Yes, the army has nothing on Prue Leith Chef’s Academy. Once I started working in the industry I came to appreciate the level of pride we were taught there, very few chefs in SA take as much pride in their appearance as we were taught.
The reason a good chef school is so expensive is mostly due to the cost of ingredients. In the first 6 months we cooked rabbit, tasted real Beluga caviar, cooked Foie Gras, cooked practically everything with butter or cream or wine. Everyday we’d learn maybe 4 or 5 recipes. We all had to have recipe books…all had to be hand-written directly from our files and theory. (No recipe book present? = Absent day deducted). On Tuesday’s we’d have exams in the morning and then theory lectures the whole day. The rest of the week we’d start our days at 8am doing practicals in the practical room, each one of us had a chef station with our stove and utensils. If a utensil went missing, you had to somehow make it reappear again or else shit hit the fan. After practicals we’d then go upstairs to wash dishes for the 2nd Commis (during the first 6 months we were referred to as 1st Commis and during your 2nd semester of 6 months you were called 2nd Commis. A Commis Chef is the lowest chef you get in the chef brigade or hierarchy in a kitchen). Prue Leith Chefs Academy has a real working restaurant attached to it, it was voted amongst the top restaurants in the Gauteng Province, all run by 2nd Commis students with the lecturers setting the menu and running the kitchens and the students cooking. On Saturday mornings we’d have what was called a “Deck Scrub” where EVERYTHING is scrubbed and cleaned. Pots, pans, walls, floors, utensils, fridges…everything. I have yet to see a kitchen as clean as the kitchens at that place. The person who would sign us off on deck scrub Saturday’s was a 2nd Commis. If you had a nice one they would be lenient and let you go early, if you had an anal one, like one called Vincent (I hope he reads this) who’d use a toothpick and check every surface, you’d leave very late in the day. If you didn’t arrive for Deck Scrub…another day deducted on your 10 day tally.
So for the first 6 months we learned how to use knives properly, how to make stocks and sauces and anything and everything below the sun. You name it, we learned how to make it. Pasta isn’t from a packet, boerewors isn’t made by butchers, jams aren’t ready packed in jars, stocks are not small salty cubes made by Knorrox, soup doesn’t come from a packet, caviar isn’t what Woolies sells, it costs R6000 for a 50g tub, custard isn’t made by Ultramel nor from a powder. Name it, we made it. If there was a braai or a function, guess what? We had to make boerewors and anything else that was needed. It was fun and interesting to actually understand how deep the mind of a chef actually runs. They are more than just servers of food. They are more than what TV and movies make them out to be. I will spare you the rest of my narrative about what I learned as I will be sharing this with you through recipes via this blog with time, my focus is more on the journey and the people who made it as crazy as it has been.
So back to the beginning, sitting in a pre-fab classroom surrounded mostly by girls (although chef schools are full of girls the opposite is true in the industry, 80% of chefs are men, somewhere inbetween ladies tend to give up or move to office jobs, as I’ll detail later, its a tough environment). As high school kids would do, we all separated into our various sexes, the girls sat in the front and the guys at the back. Fighting my urge to be the mature one I decided to sit with the guys. Joggie, Chad, Wikus, Bartho, Ruan and Isaac. Names of all the guys in our class. All exactly like characters from South Park. Joggie was our Cartman, “big boned” and always up to shit and always the instigator of nonsense. Isaac, the only Jewish student in our group and who would always somehow end up cooking the pork, was our Kyle. Chad, who we’d all jokingly call homosexual for no reason whatsoever, was the perfect foil for Butters. I, being the only black guy, was called Token…although the 2nd Commis would refer to me as “Chef”. Wikus was our silent boer seun who’d sit at the back of the class and who no one understood whenever he talked, our Kenny. Ruan and Bartho were Stan, individually. In the 12 months we were to spend together we would get up to a whole lot of mischief. Hiding people’s chef knives, swapping each others ingredients, starting rumours, discussing who’s mom was hot, coming to school hung-over on some days…and Joggie and Chad even completing assignments that they received 3 months ago on the morning they were due. Before I started chef academy I’d hardly drank beer and hated it…12 months later I was downing the stuff like water. Yep, that bad…(The bastards voted for me to be the head of the SRC…after 2 weeks of fighting and fighting I was forced to accept a role I did not want. Bastards)
If you watch South Park you will know that the story wouldn’t work without the loony teachers and administrators. Like some sort of bad joke we had ours. Karen was the student administrator and our mom, if we had complaints about how some chef looked at us funny, Karen would listen, if we made a little too much chocolate cake, Karen would happily assist in “ridding” us of it. She is from England with a real Pom accent and with funny little English mannerisms and sayings. We all thought she was loony but we loved her. She would always seize the opportunity to tell you how she was once married to a chef but that he was married to his food. She somehow had this weird idea in her head that I was an exceptional writer or something. I just thought it was the wine going to her head again. She was also the one who would deduct days from our 10 allocated days when instructed to by the chefs. Sometimes we didn’t like her coz of her devil’s advocate role.
Alongside our Loony Pom sat Nicky, as Afrikaans as they come. I’d often catch her speaking to herself and tell her she needed a man. Similar to Karen, she was our calm away from the storm that was the madness of our chef lecturers. Always happy to listen to our gripes and gossip, her little window became a familiar place. She was the lady who’d pick up the phone if you phone Prue Leith and we came to know her well over the phone when phoning in with a *cough cough* cold on a Tuesday morning.
As I mentioned before, Prue Leith has a working restaurant…and no fine dining restaurant can call itself such without it having a sommelier (wine expert) or a maitre’d. Jean-Luc Stanic (or Mr Stanic as we were forced to call him) was your typical flamboyant French man. Always ready with a snide comment and a nose in the air, he didn’t eat meat but was very friendly with the wine. He would talk to himself like it was normal and surprise you with a Zulu phrase now and then. Seeing him around always brought a smile to your face as he relieved the tension that was often in the air in the kitchens. In our first semester we wouldn’t interact with him at all as our role was simply to wash dishes and to learn.
The big boss of the school was Anthony Roberts (Mr. Roberts), you knew if you wee summoned to his office by Karen with a “Mr Roberts wants to see you” you were in big shit. The class would make its usual childish “woooooo” and the South Park gang would add their usual “he’s in love with you” comment as you’d walk to his office. We’d hardly see him unless he was doing his rounds or walking to the chef’s office. I spent 5 days with him in London and came to realise he isn’t half as bad as we’d made him out to seem. With a school full of kids from well-off families you have to be authoritative.
Then we come to the chef lecturers. Oh, where do I start. When I started out on my journey I would marvel at how crazy the chef lecturers seemed to be. I would sit quietly in my chair and wonder to myself…once I started working in the industry I came to understand the madness isn’t an exception but the norm. Chefs work in beautiful places because hotels and restaurants are built in such places, however we’re locked away in a hot metallic room where no one actually comes to visit. Some kitchens don’t have windows. With a lot of screaming and shouting and repetition of tasks and the odd physical fall-out its no wonder that chefs are the way they are. One of our chef-lecturers would often pause mid-lecture and get emotional about how the industry really is. Another one would give her cheeses names and talk to them. I won’t go into individual details about them but we feared their wrath. In that small little white building in Centurion they were God. Whatever a chef said or told you to do you would respond with a “Yes, Chef!” No questions asked. Having come from a year of being my own person and going where I wanted to suddenly be saying yes to a person roughly the same age as me but with a funny hat on. Yep, chasing that dream of mine wasn’t going to as smooth sailing as I had thought it would be…