Cooking for change

2014-07-20 15:00

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The hospitality industry needs to up the pace of transformation and realise the value that women bring to professional kitchens

The Women Chefs Congress at the Mzansi International Culinary Festival next month will see chefs from across the country assemble to discuss the slow pace of transformation in the industry.

According to Nompumelelo Mqwebu, a former head chef at Zimbali Lodge who also sits on the judging panel to determine the world’s best restaurants, transformation hasn’t even begun – female chefs and black chefs are still marginalised.

Mqwebu said women in particular appear to be invisible in the kitchen, although the kitchen is full of them and they are just as capable as their male counterparts.

On the list of the World’s Best 100 restaurants, one of the only two South African restaurants that made it was the Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek at number 72. It is headed up by prominent female chef Margot Janse. The other restaurant – at number 48 – is The Test Kitchen in Cape Town, but it is run by British chef Luke Dale-Roberts.

“There is still a boys’ club in this industry where the sous chef, executive chef and head chef of most reputable restaurants are all still male, and most of them are white,” she said.

“And it’s not just the chefs, but a wider hospitality industry issue; the whole industry needs to transform. How many general managers of hotels are women? And even restaurant managers; there are very few females.

“And it’s not like there are no women in the kitchen, there are, but they are in the lower ranks because the upper echelons are created to be a boys’ club.”

This is despite the Tourism BEE Charter, which was introduced in 2004 and applies to all companies in the hospitality industry, including restaurants that are not attached to hotels.

She said the objective of the congress was to open a dialogue and try to understand why women were not advancing in the kitchen and how to break apart the boys’ club.

Deputy Small Business Development Minister Elizabeth Thabethe will also be present at the congress, because Mqwebu said there needs to be talk of a possible intervention by the government.

The hospitality industry has been growing, thanks in part to a constant stream of tourists, as well as the investment in hotel development in Africa.

According to a report by Lagos-based consultancy ­W Hospitality Group, there are 142 hotel developments in the pipeline in sub-Saharan Africa, which amounts to 23?283 rooms.

In South Africa, there are nine hotel projects in the pipeline this year – Nigeria has the most in sub-Saharan Africa with 40 hotel projects.

The most recent statistics on tourism supplied by Statistics?SA showed that in December last year, South Africa reached a record of almost one million tourists to the country.

But Mqwebu said there was also an international bias where many hotels and restaurants are importing culinary talent from abroad, which also slows down food transformation, which she says also has a detrimental effect on the local farming industry.

“Having our own cuisine is going to mean economic growth because more and more hotels will use local indigenous ingredients, and farmers will have to increase production and then our local farmers will grow, and so it’s short-sighted of us not to do that,” said Mqwebu.

She said chefs were not being taught African cuisine at cooking schools because local chefs were not heading up the schools.

The Restaurant Association of SA, a nonprofit organisation that was formed in 2004 to act in the interests of the South African restaurateur, was not available to comment.

Culinary education

Learning to be a chef is a labour of love, but it can also leave you with a dent in your wallet.

Students can spend more than R100?000 a year on tuition and the equipment necessary for culinary indulgence.

But Mqwebu says students need to be careful of schools that pretend to be something they’re not and are not accredited with the right institutions, as she found out the hard way when she trained to be a chef nine years ago.

“The private cooking school that I went to purported to be accredited with Theta [Tourism, Hospitality and Sport Education Training Authority], but when Easter came and we had still not had lectures, we knew something was up.

“When we contacted the department of higher education and Theta, we found that it was not accredited – this was after we paid R100?000 for school fees.”

Some of the more prestigious chef schools in the country include Prue Leith Chefs Academy in Pretoria, the Institute of Culinary Arts in Cape Town, Silwood Cookery School in Cape Town and Capsicum Culinary Studio, which has campuses nationwide.

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