From the outside, it’s not much to look at: a nondescript building in the heart of the Singita Kruger National Park staff village. Take a step closer and the sound of pots clattering on iron stovetops breaks the bushveld silence. A babble of chatter and laughter wafts out across the dusty courtyard, as a flash of chef’s whites whips past the screen door. Welcome, to the Singita School of Cooking (SSC).
A cooking school in the wilderness may seem something of an anomaly, but there’s a good reason the stockpots are boiling furiously out here in the Kruger bushveld.
“Communities and conservation can’t function independently; they have to co-exist,” explains Louis Vandewalle, Chef Skills Developer at SSC. “The idea behind the Singita School of Cooking was two-fold: to increase the skill level in our lodge kitchens, but also to provide opportunities for the surrounding communities.”
The SSC opened its doors in 2007, and today offers an intensive 12-month curriculum that sees nine students drawn from local communities untying their brand-new knife-rolls in March each year. A multi-faceted training programme combines theory components completed in the classroom and online, alongside intensive practical training in the dedicated SSC kitchens.
If the course is testing, making it through the selection process is even tougher. In 2014 the school had 85 applicants for just nine places. After interviews by Singita lodge staff and chefs, 30 hopefuls were shortlisted and put through their paces in a series of theory and practical tests.
“It’s not about their skills in the kitchen,” says Vandewalle. “We focus on character and attitude. We want to make sure that they have the right foundation for us to build their kitchen skills on. And, most importantly, we want to ensure that those who join the programme will stay the course.”
Aside from occasional government grants the school is funded by guests and other partners, who support the programme by funding scholarships for students and so render the programme sustainable in the long term. Singita also invests $7500-$8000 per student, covering uniforms, equipment, ingredients and a monthly stipend.
One of the nine successful applicants enrolled in 2015 was Lovemore Khoza.
“I’m hoping to find employment with Singita after the course, but eventually my dream is to open my own restaurant,” says Khoza (24), who hails from the village of Hluvukani outside the Kruger National Park. “I’ve always wanted to work in the kitchen, but before I came here I only knew how to make a few simple things. Here we are learning not just how to cook, but how to cook our very best.”
Back in the steamy kitchen the students are hard at work around the central cooking station and steel prep tables. A poster of beef cuts dominates the wall above the freezers. On another a whiteboard is filled with notes: the basics of a béchamel sauce, cooking tips for the week’s menu, how to chiffonette and julienne vegetables.
These student chefs may be fine-tuning their knife and sauté technique, but many of the skills being taught here extend beyond the stove.
“We’re trying to develop work skills and work ethics too,” explains Vandewalle, who says time-management and forward planning are vital skills for the young chefs to learn. “Each day one chef is appointed to be in charge of the kitchen. The responsibility then rests on them to allocate tasks to each of the student chefs, work out portions and run the kitchen.”
After months of training, real-world experience is gained in the kitchens of Singita Lebombo and Sweni Lodges, with students rotating through pastry, cold section and hot kitchen. At the end of the 12-month course, students emerge as competent commis chefs.
“Unlike many chef schools with longer programs, we focus on the fundamentals,” says Vandewalle, as a stockpot bubbles on the central range. “By the time they leave this kitchen our students have a limited set of skills, but they are extremely proficient at what they do.”
Each year a handful of the graduating students move immediately into the kitchens at Singita, but word of the school has spread and SSC graduates are increasingly sought-after by lodges and guesthouses across the region.
“We have a very high success rate with students finding employment, either with Singita lodges or further afield,” adds Vandewalle. “Because of Singita’s extremely high standards, we find that’s more than sufficient for what other lodges and guesthouses are expecting.”
For most students though, a position in one of the Singita kitchens is first prize.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the kitchen, but just never had the opportunity,” bubbles Unity Mokhomolo (25) from the village of Welverdiend, who says she’s happiest in the pastry section. “After the course I am hoping to be one of the students that Singita takes to work at the lodges. Singita started my career in the kitchen, so I want to work for them. If that happens, I will grab that opportunity with both hands.”