This is a bi-daily diary I’ll be writing about the 2 weeks I’ll be spending at Ulusaba, one of Virgin Limited Edition resorts. They own various resorts around the world. Although owned by Virgin the title right underneath the logo (and EVERYWHERE you look) is the signature “Richard Branson’s Private Game Lodge”. It’s a beautiful place and once again, instead of visiting a stunning place on pleasure I am here to work. Such is the nature of our profession.
I got called on Friday by the hospitality placement agency that always seems to find me the coolest…and most remote gigs. They told me the lodge needed a stand-in chef for 2 weeks and asked if I’d be interested. After chatting to my girlfriend we decided the distance would be bearable for 2 weeks and plus the extra income would come in handy.
So off we drove to OR Tambo Internationa Airport on Sunday morning, my flight had been scheduled for 12pm and I was told check in would be at 11am. Having travelled a bit in my short life most of my experience has been with relatively large planes. The kind that air hostesses can freely walk through and offer you tiny cans of coke and even tinier bottles of whisky, The entrance we had to use wasn’t even on the main side of the airport, we had to drive round and get to the back entrance of OR Tambo Airport where all the cargo, freight and charter planes park. Check in didn’t even involve a frisk search or scan of my luggage. Heck, I didn’t even show them any I.D.! This was old school, the way airlines used to be 20 years ago. After our last goodbyes and hugs I was summonsed to our plane, a tiny little thing that sat 9 people maximum. The pilot was our air steward too. He did the usual “exits are there and there” stuff and told us to ask him any questions if during the flight we wanted to know anything. I thought he was kidding…he wasn’t. There wasn’t a door to the pilot’s compartment and we could literally watch as he flew the plane, I put thoughts of a crazy person jumping over and grabbing the stick out of my mine and 60 turbulent minutes later our one propeller powered plane landed on a tiny airstrip in the Kruger National Park. One of my favourite places in the world.
Ulusaba was apparently voted best hotel in Africa (but after reading the fine-print I realised the awards were sponsored by Virgin so let me leave that one alone). It’s actually 3 lodges: Rock lodge, Safari lodge and Cliff lodge. As the names say and the picture shows, the lodge is on top of a steep hill. Set on stilts every view is breathtaking. I was taken on a mini-tour on my first day in the kitchen and I was suitably impressed. 5 star in the city is nothing compared to 5 star in remote places. You pay for the exclusivity and the view and the privilege to experience something that not many can say they’ve experiences. The deco is typical “African inspired” but in a classy way. Lots of carvings, animal skins, wood, leather and paintings. I haven’t had a chance to go into a guest room as yet.
Most lodges have a staff village close by and that is where I’ll be staying for the next two weeks. Its at the bottom of the cliff and behind the lodge…so our lights don’t spoil the guests idea that the staff are ghosts that disappear after dark. It’s a pretty well equipped village with a store, children’s play area, swimming pool, the usual offices etc etc. Everyone knows everyone and i spent most of my first day shaking hands and trying to remember names and faces…something that I am completely useless at. The main language in these parts is xiTsonga…another thing I’m completely useless at. I pick up works here and there but the rest just flies over my head. They speak it so fast I feel like I’m watching an auctioneer at an auction. When i last worked in the Kruger I tried my best and the staff also tried to teach me a word or two but sadly its one of those languages my tongue and mind just refuse to grasp. So a mixture of isiZulu and sePedi (my mother tongue) and hand signals here and there are how I communicate at the moment.
The Head Chef is very chilled and laid back…something I’m not accustomed to. Wherever I’ve worked you will immediately know who the head chef is by how they behave and carry themselves. Its very refreshing to work in an environment where people respect and smile with each other in the kitchen. There are the usual tensions with waitresses though! Which is a norm in our industry.
There also isn’t a set menu, every morning the head chef decides on what she feels like making and the menu is written on the board and typed up to be presented to the guests. Yep, that’s how laid back it is. I was actually telling them earlier today that compared to the hotels and restaurants I’ve worked in, this is a breeze. I used to serve 12 guests alone when I was a private chef…over here serving 16 people is considered busy!
On our first day we had 5 fussy eaters. 3 Vegans and 2 non-gluten eaters. We’ve had to make shift and come up with some interesting and bizarre alternatives. I’ve been tasked with coming up with all the vegetarian and vegan food. It’s fun…and a bit tiresome, I’ve realised nearly everything a chef normally uses has animal by-products in it. Working without flour is another thing that’s proving difficult.
Anyway, I’ve gotta run off to do my first dinner service. Up on the cliff…in the bush…without any fences…and a family of lions and a pack of hyena’s in the vicinity. Nice