A Chef’s Journey: My first taste of a professional kitchen

I mentioned in the first instalment of this crazy journey I decided to take myself on that at Prue Leith they’ve gone and taken a 3 year diploma course and squeezed it into a measly 18 months. The 18 months are divided into 3 semesters. The first being the most theory intensive and bloody, with exams one day and slicing off finger tips the next. The second 6 months are more practical, you spend them doing a bit less theory but a lot more actual cooking, this time for paying customers in the school’s restaurant. If by some miracle you survive the 12 hour days and the insanity that is a building full of foodies and culinary know-it-alls you are then deemed suitably fit to be unleashed on the outside world. Apprenticeship…or legalized slavery (as a lot of people came to call it at the end of it all.)

With Prue Leith Chef’s Academy being considered one of the best chef schools in SA there isn’t a shortage of restaurants, lodges and hotels clambering to “hire” their students to do the 6 month practical training at their establishment. At the end of 2nd Commis we were all given options as to which part of the country we’d like to go do our practical training. You had the choice of around 20 establishments, the majority being in the Western Cape. I dislike Cape Town with a passion…ok, let me rewind that, I dislike the attitude of the people who live in Cape Town with a passion so I chose to remain in Gauteng and do my practical training at one of the signature hotels in Johannesburg, The Westcliff. A pink collection of 5 star buildings hugging the slopes of a hill over-looking Johannesburg Zoo. A better view of Johannesburg you will not find.

Westcliff hotel restaurant from the outside

Westcliff hotel restaurant from the outside

The FIFA Football World Cup (am sure some sort of trademark thing is meant to go next to that collection of words otherwise I’ll be thrown to the pigs or something but whatever) was happening in 2010 and I began my practical training just as it was about to come to an end. My 6 months of hell and joy began in May and ended in December. A bit more than 6 months but the hotel loved that fact. During the period we served Alicia Keys, one of the Kardashian sisters and Reggie Bush and a few other celeb types.

A little known secret about restaurants and hotel kitchens in South Africa is that a lot are staffed with students. A LOT of chef schools unleash their students freely to these establishments to do “practical training” but I saw many students from other chef schools that didn’t have the required skills to cope in the environment of a working kitchen. Prue Leith would make each establishment actually pay us a stipend every month, just to cover petrol costs and to make us feel we weren’t quite slaves. Another thing I realised was why students from Prue Leith are held in such high regard by the South African industry, the amount of knowledge and practical training (as much as we hated it) was invaluable. A lot of the time we knew more about food than the actual chefs who’d had decades of experience. Anyway, before I start sounding like a free advertorial for that school let me get to the madness that was The Westcliff Hotel.

The Westcliff Hotel is set on a hill. The entrance is at the bottom of the hill adjacent to one of the busiest roads in Johannesburg, Jan Smuts Avenue. It is made up of 3 sections. The hotel itself, a collection of pink buildings that can be seen from kilometres away; the function and banqueting section called Jacaranda which has its own entrance and parking and its own kitchen; and lastly the hotel, which has lovingly been built at the very top of the hill. The reason I say ‘lovingly” will be detailed as I type this blog. The restaurant is further divided into two levels, Polo Bar which is the bar section and serves tapa’s, high teas and light food and the actual seated restaurant section called La Belle Terrace, both are served by one kitchen. It is a picturesque place from the outside, quiet looking and designed in the Tuscan style that is so popular with townhouse complexes all over Johannesburg. I arrived on my first day and was treated like a guest, I got to the reception area, told the people on duty that I was there to meet the Executive Chef and was told I could have a seat whilst they sent for a vehicle to come and fetch me. Little did I know that this would be the first and last time such courtesy would be afforded me. The Exec Chef was the esteemed Nicky Gibbs, a well known name in the culinary industry. She’s cooked for so many celebrities and well known people that rattling them off would take me forever. One of her claims to fame is that she was the Rolling Stones private chef for a while. This powerhouse of a chef was to be my mentor for 6 months. Oh the coming madness…

The Westcliff Hotel from a distance

The Westcliff Hotel from a distance

So my transport arrived, a 12 seater mini-van all with a suit wearing chauffeur. I’d never been to the Westcliff and wondered to myself why I couldn’t just walk to the restaurant. 4 minutes later I realised why. I reckon the Westcliff is the steepest hotel in the world in terms of the gradient it’s built on. It’s physically impossible to walk up that hill without leaning forward. The reception area is at the bottom…the restaurants are all at the top…and the kitchen is the furthest point. I learned 10minutes later that this was to be the last time I’d be fetched by the hotel transport as it was exclusively for guests and the Executive Chef if she saw fit to use it. For the rest of the 6 months I’d be there I’d have to do the walk of hell, through rain and all. I soon learned that walk up the hill wasn’t even close to being the worst part of being a trainee chef.

As mentioned above, the kitchen serves TWO sections, the bar and the restaurant…it also serves room service but the room service orders were so minimal that they’re not worth mentioning. The waiters from the bar wear polo shirts to match the whole polo club theme of the bar whilst the waiters from the restaurant wear white shirts with gold waist coats. The kitchen itself is one long corridor, just after the entrance is the room service contact room (a space we were to frequent a lot over the months I was there), after the room service area was the Cold Kitchen, this area made the salads, garnishes, high tea sandwiches, quiches, cold breakfast, charcuterie, cheeses, amuse bouche and starters. The sous chef for this section was a crazy bearded man called Tshabang. Sotho by name and surname, Zulu by language and actions. I’d call him Mr Sell-out as he didn’t speak a word of seSotho even though his mom was Sotho. Before moving upstairs the section next to Cold Kitchen was the Pastry Kitchen. A tiny little room that could accommodate maybe 4 people at most. It was headed up by a Tswana chef called Moses, a dude who thought he was God’s answer to single women. He hated Zulu’s….which was funny, as the kitchen was staffed with around a 70% compliment of them. The rest of the kitchen was Hot Kitchen. The fridge was located upstairs with the freezer inside it. A place we trainees would come to know very well. Coming from a super clean and shiny kitchen at chef academy and suddenly landing in a small dark kitchen with 28 chefs was a recipe for some crazy and memorable days.

So what does a trainee chef do in a kitchen? All the things that the other chefs don’t want to do. If deliveries arrived, we had to run and pack them. If a chef ordered you to do something you said “yes, chef” and did it. You run errands, do the bulk work that other chefs find tedious, I remember once I was ordered to make 2000 duck spring rolls. Having been an engineer for 6 years prior to going to chef school I knew that for me to earn my stripes I’d have to pull my big boy undies up, suck it in and work. I never grumbled. I just got on with it. A philosophy not every student from other chef schools believed in. In a restaurant or hotel kitchen there is only one king, they’re called the Exec Chef…then that king has king wannabe’s called Sous Chef’s who try claim that crown when the king is not around. The problem is that in a large kitchen there are many king wannabe’s and they all have titles that say they could be king when the king isn’t around. Add a few snobbish chef trainees from fancy chef schools that the king wannabe’s never attended and you have a madhouse. I soon learned that explaining or trying to teach an old chef about food is not a good idea. When the sous chef on duty mispronounces and English or French dish over and over whilst calling orders, do not correct them, just shout “Yes, chef”. Whilst I was there I saw 3 other students from other chef schools get kicked out and told not to return. Back chat and talking back to a senior chef is a deadly sin…not pitching up for work when you’ve been scheduled to work is even worse.

Speaking of schedules. There were 28 chefs at the Westcliff but the roster works in such a way that you’d get maybe 7 at most working in a shift. The days are divided into 3 sections. The morning shift, the evening shift and the graveyard shift. The morning shift started at 6am and ended at 2pm. The evening shift started at 2pm and ended at 11pm and the graveyard shift started at 11pm until 6am. The graveyard shift was run by one chef. They’re there simply to keep a lookout for room service orders during the night and to prepare for breakfast the next day. To be assigned graveyard shift meant you had done something really hectic to piss Nicky off.

Even though we were forever grumpy and complaining about being overworked and how much we disliked such and such a chef I must admit that that kitchen was a crazy happy place. Insults were seen as par for the course. You’d greet a fellow chef with “hi you asshole” and it would be seen as affectionate. Moses referred to everyone who wasn’t Sotho or Tswana as “mbhuzi” which means goat in Zulu. His theory being that Zulu’s are as loony as goats and also that they’re forever slaughtering the poor things for silly rituals. Instead of saying “yes chef” to other chefs he’d say “yebo mbhuzi”. A master ladies man of note anything with a skirt on was fair game. I’d spend many hours listening to his theories and many tales about women, as he was my senior chef in the pastry section I had to. He was also a master at cheating the system when it came to preparing recipes and desserts. He’d look at a recipe, decide it was too complicated and then somehow make his own version and decorate it in such a way you wouldn’t realise it was a flop. Thankfully I didn’t pay much attention or take his way on. He had a temper of note though, if the waiters would take too long to pick up orders or they called the wrong order he became a raging bull. I found it all hilarious. Chefs aren’t made to be 100% sane it seems. We had another chef in the pastry section call Janet, he pronounced her name as “Jeenat”. I gave up trying to correct her after the first week. Untrained and happy to find short cuts when preparing her desserts, she was one of only 3 female chefs besides Nicky in that kitchen. Many of the older Zulu chefs saw working in Pastry Kitchen as a woman’s job and they would happily tell Moses this, to his retorts of “voetsek!” Due to the amount of short cuts I sadly can’t say I learned anything whilst working in the Pastry section at the Westcliff. We had to work 2 months in every section…those 2 months were the least productive intellectually for me. A lot of the time I’d spend just observing and telling myself my pastry kitchen one day will be better than that.

Lobster tail salad

Lobster tail salad

Cold kitchen was probably my favourite area. Working with Tshabang was a daily comedy show. As he sucked at speaking his ‘mother tongue’ he wasn’t considered as a moSotho by Sotho speakers but because of his name and surname and background the Zulu chefs didn’t consider him as a Zulu person either. Forever stuck in limbo both sides would take pot shots at him constantly. In KwaZulu-Natal, where Zulu’s are from, apparently Sotho speakers are called donkeys. So when orders would be called for Cold section by the Zulu Sous Chef on duty they were almost always followed by a derogatory word or two. Tshabang would have his own retort; instead of the standard “yes chef” there’d be some song or crazy repetitive response like “yes chef dankie chef ngiyeza chef” over and over. Once again my opinion that chefs aren’t bred to be sane was constantly affirmed.

Tshabang on his knees in the pastry kitchen

Tshabang on his knees in the pastry kitchen

Unlike in pastry section I learned a lot in cold kitchen. How to make proper salad dressings, different ways of plating salads and starters, various types of ingredients and products and I mastered the art of grilled chicken. I wasn’t too impressed with the way the chefs made their roast chicken for Caesar Salads so I experimented with ingredients and techniques over time and came to my master plan for roast chicken. No I won’t share it with you. I got so good at cold section that there were days when I ran the whole section by myself. It required someone who was organised and had a process in mind for each order…which was right up my alley.

Hot kitchen was a madhouse. I thought pastry and cold kitchen were crazy, hot kitchen was the king level of insanity. Full of alpha males who all thought they all know best. I would often stand just outside the hot kitchen section near the sink and watch as the madness unravelled. Swearing, pots flying, yelling at each other and many a verbal exchange. It was just pure entertainment. The big nduna (chief) of the section was a Sous chef named Khumalo (that’s it; we didn’t know or hear his first name). He had been a chef for 30 years, started as a cleaner and would always tell us his stories about how he would be called racist names when he started as a chef. Never afraid to tell you exactly what was on his mind he made me laugh all the time with his dry jokes and warped sense of humour. He’d give peanuts to the Tsonga scullery workers because, in his logic, that’s what made Tsonga people happy. He would speak to himself all the time and just out of the blue shout things like “That’s nice!” or “They say Khumalo is old, they say Khumalo can’t work…but look at me now” and my favourite of them all “I like thisssss” with emphasis on that last “s” at the end of the word. Prone to mispronouncing the name of every dish on the menu when calling orders to the kitchen and not giving a damn he taught me a thing or two. He’d worked as a chef for so long that he had burned the nerves in his finger to such a degree that he didn’t use tongs to lift and turn meat on the grill anymore. He showed me how to clean prawns quickly, because of my work ethic he never lost his cool with me and allowed me more time on the grill and in areas I wasn’t too sure about. I worked a few weeks with him on the grill but I’ll admit I didn’t learn that much because of the rest of the hot heads in that area.

Another chef I chef I won’t forget from hot kitchen was the saucier (a chef who specialises in sauces) Chichi.

Chichi in his corner talking to himself, as usual

Chichi in his corner talking to himself, as usual

He was another crazy one prone to speaking to himself. As his section was right next to the pastry section he and Moses would trade insults the whole night to everyone’s amusement. He made the worst stock I’ve seen or tasted. That’s one of the sad parts about the whole chef industry in SA. As the majority of chefs are untrained a lot of the techniques they use are incorrect. It’s a vicious cycle. Qualified chefs come out of chef academies and due to untrained chefs not demanding higher salaries the industry is not financially viable for a young chef and a lot decide to leave and go overseas or to go work in other fields of work. As wages are low this means restaurant owners don’t increase food prices on their menu to international levels…which, ironically is what is killing the industry as it then means financially it doesn’t make sense to open a restaurant…and therefore there are fewer players in the fine dining industry in Gauteng. It all starts with education, something I’m hoping I can help change through my company.

There are many stories and funny snippets I could share about my time at the Westcliff like listening to guests talking nonsense over the famous Sunday morning Westcliff buffet or the story of how waiters would steal stale scones to take home to impress their girlfriends. Maybe someday when I write a book I’ll detail them all and say more about Chef Nicky Gibbs but as this is a blog, I’ll spare you the details.

At the end of the 6 months we returned to Prue Leith to do our last practical exam which involved baking a bread, making a starter, making a main course and finally a dessert in 4 hours. It was hell and insane but the outcome was worth it. The first section of my journey to chefdom was complete as I stood there taking a photo whilst holding my Grande Diploma in Food and Wine. It was an expensive piece of cardboard that had taken me on a journey of discovery to win but it was so worth it. First step done…a lot more were to follow.

5 thoughts on “A Chef’s Journey: My first taste of a professional kitchen

  1. RELENTLESS!!!! Absolutely f%$¥¥#N Relentless! Had to smile when I read your article. People mentioned above, that I wanted to murder and the next day laughed at their funny stories. Those were the days

  2. Lol! Rose! Long time no see. I left out A LOT of names and things. Don’t want people coming to my house! Hahhaa. Yeah, it was crazy times and fun times. Hope you’re good

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