Diary: 2 weeks at Richard Branson’s lodge – Days 10-12

My 2 week invited stint in the bush is coming to an end soon. I’ve actually been missing city life, strangely enough. Lying awake last night whilst listening to hyena’s making a racket outside the fence of the village seemed like they were laughing goodbye at me. Or maybe I’ve had too much of the local water to drink.

Its actually not my last few days technically speaking as I’ve been asked to return in a week’s time. It seems my efforts and special kind of lunacy is appreciated.

View from the toilet. Seriously

View from the toilet. Seriously

Speaking of lunacy. My theory that there is not a sane chef any where in the world seems to still run true. The antics I’ve seen in the kitchens here have been nothing short of hilarious. From arguing with waiters and their spelling mistakes and slowness in picking up orders to impromptu dancing and singing sessions mid-service in the kitchen. A few days ago a full throttle choir service of all the Lion King songs went on…in the kitchen, with your’s truly adding silky tenor notes at well judged moments. Being in a talkative kitchen with talkative co-workers helps the time go by quicker. We work crazy hours and anything to take the mind of your body’s weariness is welcomed.

It’s Autumn at the moment in South Africa. The first week of my being here was nothing but hell weather wise. Temperatures were well above 30 degrees Celsius daily and I would sleep with the fan on full blast but out of the blue suddenly it all changed. It was around 10 degrees yesterday afternoon, I even had to grab a blanket to keep warm when I got back to my accommodation. The past 2 days were also very wet. It rained for the whole of Wednesday and the whole of yesterday morning. I shouldn’t complain because I did pray for rain but now I regret not having packed a jacket or anything even remotely warm.

The wet weather also meant guests couldn’t go for game drives and have the bush dinner that we had planned. A Bush dinner involves something similar to the Boma I described previously except this on is in the middle of the bush…in a game reserve. It always freaks me out whenever I have to work at a bush dinner. The game rangers have to load up their rifles and be ready for any “disturbances”…but they’re only around when guests are around, before then its usually you and the fires stopping you from becoming dinner. Guests love it as its a surprise experience for them and something unique to say you’ve had dinner in the middle of the African Savannah but for us its a mission and a half as food is prepared off sight in the kitchens and then transported to the location…meat is prepared on portable braai’s BUT the problem comes with dishes and after its all over, we have to pack and transport everything back to the kitchens and clean up before leaving. It usually means a very late night for all kitchen staff. So when the heavens opened and decided to rain on the very day I was scheduled to be the lead chef on the bush dinner I smiled…a huge grin.

View of the lounge and bar from above the kitchen

View of the lounge and bar from above the kitchen

The dining room inside Rock Lodge. Dinner is served here

The dining room inside Rock Lodge. Dinner is served here

Food in the bush is less pretentious than in the city and comes with less frills and fuss. I’ve had to switch off the fine-dining side of my chef brain. As I’m only a relief chef at the moment I also can’t impose my personal preferences on the menu and standards here. Learning to accept how things are done by others and not questioning them is one of the most difficult things for me sometimes. I have fiddled here and there though with some of the recipes and techniques and the ideas were accepted. Maybe when I come back in a few weeks more of my way will be allowed to infiltrate the status quo.

The nice thing with working at a lodge is the amount of money one saves. When I was at chef school one of our chef lecturers told us to never consider working at a lodge as it will kill our classically trained skills. Granted, because of the remoteness of lodges you can’t use fresh produce everyday nor can you make everything from scratch but when you way up the financial benefits of being a chef at a lodge verses being a chef in an urban environment it makes far more sense for a young chef to be at a lodge. Accommodation is paid for, as are meals, by the lodge. You don’t need to drive to and from work and you also don’t have to worry about bills like electricity, water and petrol. You can save 90% of your salary each month and live stress free. The one loss, however, is the connection lost between you and loved ones. One of the chefs I’ve been working with here has worked here since 1991! I can’t imagine working at a place for 2 years let alone 22 years. Anyway, she says she doesn’t see herself living or moving anywhere else. Unlike at a lot of other lodges the chefs here have been here for a while. So you can imagine how difficult it is for a chef from the city like me with crazy culinary ideas to come in and try change a few things. 

I’ve been trying to take a few photos as I walk through the lodge with my BlackBerry (I’ll spare you my usual rant about how crap BlackBerry phones are) and all the photos in this post are from my phone. This is what the lodge looks like from inside. Remember it’s all mostly built on stilts and its on top of a steep face of a hill. I still sit sometimes and marvel at how they managed to built it all. There’s a staff driver who fetches us and drops us off when we radio him, whenever they go up the hill every driver has to let the rest of the lodge know by saying “Up Rock”, this warns anyone on the hill that a vehicle is coming up…and when you go down you do the same except you radio “Down Rock”. Apparently sometimes you get elephants who decide they like the small road that goes up the hill and as you turn round the curve you’ll find them there just hanging around. One bull elephant chased one of the FOH managers back up the hill…in reverse. When she couldn’t reverse any further it came to a stop right above her. Eventually it calmed down and left but that’s the life in the bush, National Geographic animals are your neighbours. Anyway, back to the “up rock” story. So staff have managed to decipher the voices on the radio and know who is speaking (I still can’t work it out, it all sounds like gibberish to me) and one of the staff drivers is apparently Enemy-No.1 with kitchen staff. When we run out of certain supplies we radio an order down to the store which is situated in the staff village at the bottom of the hill. The lady who runs the store, Margie, will give the order to the staff driver and on his next round he’ll come up to the kitchen drop them off. This particular driver doesn’t feel the need to get out the vehicle and bring the orders to the kitchen and when he arrives he usually radios for the kitchen by saying “Rock Kitchen come in”. Yesterday as I was about to pick up the radio and reply I was quickly told by the waiters to leave the radio alone. Not knowing what was going on I promptly dropped the radio. The driver radioed the same request about 8 more times with all going ignored. I realised that if he was to come to the kitchen he’d see me working closest to the radio and give me grief so I promptly ran off to the dining room.

I turns out that the kitchen staff ignore this poor guy’s radio calls because he’s lazy to come to the kitchen and he takes his time when picking them up! hahaha. In turn he also ignores their calls when they radio for the staff driver to come pick them up. Madness. He dropped the stuff ordered from the store and left in a huff after giving the scullery lady a piece of his mind in Shangaan.

The upper deck with viewing couches over looking the land below

The upper deck with viewing couches over looking the land below

Our transport vehicle to get us from the staff village to the lodge on the cliff

Our transport vehicle to get us from the staff village to the lodge on the cliff

I worked on night at Safari lodge on Tuesday night. Safari lodge isn’t like Rock lodge, where I work, it’s built on even ground and so its kitchen is bigger and more spacious but its air cons don’t work! Strangely its walk-in fridge is smaller. I worked with one of the sous chefs who’d just come back from leave. A silver haired man who you can tell has watched a lot of Food Network and BBC Food but sucks at implementing his ideas. He made me come out and present the menu with him to the guests and promptly forgot one of the dishes he’d created. I had to remind him. One of his main courses was a fillet of beef with no starch. I had to bite my tongue and console myself inside.

I’m off to go prep for dinner service. I’m scheduled for the 3pm shift, its a boring one which involves lots of prep work for tomorrow’s breakfast. After serving afternoon tea at 4pm between 5pm and 7pm you hang around doing nothing, so I expect a boring evening. Hurry up and wait, such is the life of a chef…

View of the lower deck from inside the lounge

View of the lower deck from inside the lounge

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