My journey as a chef has been a relatively rapid one. There have been highs and there have been lows. From the outside, being a chef can look glamorous and fun-filled, but it takes a lot. A lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of patience, a lot of drive, a lot of pain, a lot of endurance and a lot of love. From as far back as I can remember I’ve always had a passion for cooking. Whether it be my insisting on always making the stuffing for the Christmas turkey, to experimenting with recipes way above my capability in books I found in our kitchen.
Maria Ngcobo was my nanny. She was (and forever will be) one of my favourite people in the whole world. She brought me up and looked after me whilst my parents were at work. Being in the hotel industry, they would be busy for long periods of time, sometimes from before I woke up until after I went to bed. This meant countless hours in Maria’s care. We would spend whole afternoons sitting outside while she would try and even her complexion with lemon juice and Zambuk in the sun, and I would search through the grass roots for bugs or ride my tricycle around the driveway. We would then bake a chocolate cake for the family to share when everyone was back home. We would prepare dinner, make lemon biscuits, sort the Tupperware in the cupboard. Sometimes we would make phutu and chicken feet in her kitchen and I would sit and eat it with enthusiasm.
If I were to say that there was one individual who made me love cooking, that person would be Maria. When she passed away, I was devastated, wholly and completely devastated. She was such a huge part of my life which I was not ready to lose. I am yet to have that same amount of grief in my life as what I experienced when she died. I still wish that she was around to see my life, I sometimes think that in some ways she might just be.
My journey after school saw me trying to break away from the hospitality mould which was set for me. I went to Rhodes and studied a BA Law. 6 months in, I looked back at what I had achieved and realised that all that was, was nothing apart from the experience. I always say that any experience is a good one, so the 6 months wasn’t in vain. I decided to leave as the academic route just wasn’t for me and I am happy that I acknowledged that sooner rather than later.
I went back home and started working at the hotel as a waiter. My salary was living at home and the tips that I might earn. Later that year I broke my back and ended up incapacitated after a back operation. I recuperated and left for Cape Town to study a formal Chef’s course at The South African Chef’s Academy under chefs Paul Hartmann, Sam Marshall and Garth Stroebel. The plan thereafter was to further my experience abroad. This didn’t materialise and I went back to the family hotel to work in the kitchen, scrubbing the grills and doing the dishes.
Circumstances then saw me committing to staying a year at the hotel where I was promoted to canteen chef. I then stayed a second year, where towards the end of that year, via every section in the kitchen, I was promoted to executive chef. This was a huge challenge as I had to learn incredibly quickly how to do everything properly and especially, how to manage people. I had a very difficult time earning the trust and respect of the veteran cooks in the kitchen. Gaining control of the kitchen took a long time. I was stifled by my inexperience, but this was only a temporary problem as it became so much more than just a job. It became my life, my future and, literally, my everything. I had to make it work and I had to make it mine. I worked for periods of 3 months without a day off, sometimes for 20 hours “a day”. This hasn’t been healthy and has caused imbalance in my life and health, which I realise now.
The most difficult part of the whole experience has been learning about people. About having to adjust your thinking to realise that people who dine out don’t know your story and that most of the time, don’t actually care. You can become dehumanised in the hospitality industry and you get hurt. All true chefs are sensitive people, no matter what they like people to see them as. All creatives are. People complain about things and it can cut so deep that it floods all of your thoughts for days. It can feel like a direct attack on your creation which you have spent time on and believe in, but to the complainer it could be just an unimportant mundane complaint which they feel won’t be heard. Where it’s due, critique and complaints can help you improve and can be very helpful and I am always grateful to people who give constructive feedback at the time. It can be incredibly difficult to fix anything after a stewed-upon, hard-hitting complaint is given via one of the many social media handles; some of which are developed solely for negativity towards the hospitality profession. One needs to grow a very thick skin in this industry, which can only come with experience. It’s tough, but it’s a must.
From where I began to where I am now, I can be proud of what I’ve achieved and I wish that Maria was still around to see that. I have learnt so much and I have gained immeasurable experience through leading a brigade of twenty-six and assisting in running the hotel as a partner. I am under no illusion that this is only the start of my turbulent hospitality industry journey and I can only continue to aspire to the level of so many of my peers. But, that can only come with having a level head and a balanced lifestyle, which in my case, can only come with further experience.
Latest posts by Alex Poltera (see all)
- Brioche French Toast with Roasted Figs, Mascarpone and Maple Syrup - May 4, 2017
- Cinnamon Churros with Cayenne Pepper Chocolate Ganache and Miso Caramel Dipping Sauce - March 14, 2017
- Vanilla and Lemon Curd Mille-Feuille - March 1, 2017
- Vegan Beetroot Tartare - February 20, 2017
- Valentines Day Chocolate Torrone - February 7, 2017
- Wedding Eats: Gayle & Justin at The Glades - January 19, 2017
- Kaylan’s Tandoori Chicken Skewers - December 15, 2016
- Vegan Mince Pies - December 5, 2016
- Rooibos Panna Cotta with Lemon Buttermilk Sponge and Berry Coulis - November 15, 2016
- Butternut and Parmesan Open Ravioli with Burnt Sage Butter and Toasted Hazelnuts - October 26, 2016
- Green Monday: the best MLT by Keri Bainborough - September 19, 2016
- Eating Green on Mondays – an interview with I Love Foodies - September 12, 2016
- Abingdon launches their 2014 MCC with Bubbles and Brunch at Tijnhuis - September 9, 2016
- Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck - August 16, 2016
- Review: Dower House - August 2, 2016