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Monday, June 8, 2009

Singita Cooking School- A community project

Singita Lodge in Kruger National Park has implemented a creative way to help the community, develop their staff and staff their kitchen with exceptional talent. It was born out of the remoteness of their Kruger Concession locations (Singita Lebombo and Sweni Lodges) and their desire to help the community. We visited the remarkable school last month and congratulate them on their creative program and success. Here's their story.


Four factors came together to create the Singita Cooking School:
  • Singita Kruger National Park’s real desire and that of many of its guests, to assist in the active development of local communities was proving challenging because of the very remoteness of the lodge. The villages where most of their staff had their homes were a 3 hour drive away.
  • Staffing its kitchens with skilled, inspired and qualified chefs meant recruiting from the far away cities. Local staff with the right foundation skills to thrive and progress were proving almost impossible to locate. There were very few success stories of local enthusiastic staff moving up through the kitchen ranks. This was a situation which needed to change.
  • The Singita staff village had a kitchen large enough to accommodate 8 chefs operating comfortably in their own workspace.
  • Kurt Abrahams, a Senior Sous Chef at Singita Sweni, SKNP, of 4 years service with the company and possessing outstanding culinary skills and a passion for staff development, put forward a proposal that he commence training “interns” from the local community, in parallel with his normal work.

From these 4 strands the Singita Cooking School was born.

Such a program was practical – we had the committed trainer to hand and the perfect facility. Such a program was a hands-on practical way to assist the distantly-situated community in a sustainable way. One up-skilled person with a good job and sound prospects has a multiplying effect on his/her immediate family and the broader community. Besides the income provided, they can also provide much needed inspiration, energy and leadership to depressed under-developed areas.

As a result, at the end of 2007, Kurt vacated his position as Sweni Head Chef and became the full-time trainer and mentor. The kitchen was equipped with all the necessary equipment to house a full-scale cooking school for up to 10 trainees. An advertisement went out to the local community for youth who were passionate about cooking and becoming trained Commis Chefs. And the first group of trainees started “school” in January 2007 ensuring that the Singita Cooking School “started cooking”!

How the Cooking School works

1. The Singita Cooking School is a community development program aimed at equipping 8 youth from the local community – over each 12 month period - with an enthusiasm for cooking and the foundation skills required to commence a successful career as a Chef.

2. It is a 1 year full time Learnership program for 8 students.

3. The program is advertised in the local community – by word of mouth, posters and flyers.

4. Each student receives a chef’s uniform and essential kitchen equipment and is provided with either transport or accommodation to ensure their daily attendance at classes. Students are paid a monthly stipend during their training.

5. The program is a combination of theoretical and practical training, aimed at building knowledge, skills and confidence to enable the trainee to take up a Commis Chef position in a professional kitchen and to drive their own careers into the future.

6. Students gain practical skills by “practicing” on Singita staff and, on occasions, by working in the Singita Lebombo kitchen to gain exposure on the preparation of food for guests. Staff have benefited from the far healthier preparation of their food and an enhanced “culinary experience”.

7. In addition to the culinary aspect, the program includes the development of life skills and a focus on improving spoken English.

8. Students are assessed as they progress and have to be found competent in all modules in order to graduate from the School.

9. On completion of the training program, students are assisted to apply for positions as Commis Chefs within Singita and with other lodges situated close to or within the Kruger National Park.

10. To ensure the continued development of those trainees that it employs into its kitchens, Singita is now rolling out a Part B to this program: a 2½ year Commis Chef development program run by the Head Chefs of each Singita kitchen. All Commis Chefs will be equipped to fill any new Chef d’ Partie vacancies that might arise.

Our Cooking School trainees – two examples:

Mavis Mongoe – a past student

One of the students from the first Singita Cooking School class is Mavis. She lives in a village called Welverdient, which is very close to the Singita’s road exit from the Reserve. She was 21 when she joined the program. One of 4 siblings, since leaving school she had had a short stint of experience working as a general assistant in a Burger ranch when she had traveled to Johannesburg to try and find work after leaving school. She reports that her future was looking bleak. She was selected to join the Cooking School because of her enthusiastic attitude and an interest in cooking. She was obviously intelligent, an organized approach and had good interpersonal skills.

Once she concluded the course she was offered a position in the Singita Lebombo kitchen where she continues her training under the beady eye of Clinton Drake, the Head Chef who was recently recognized as an Relais & Chateau “Rising Star”. She has a bright future ahead. Clinton says of Mavis: “She has real potential and is growing in confidence and skill on a daily basis. I am struck by the difference to her life that resulted from her applying to be part of the fledgling Singita Cooking School. She says that without it she would either still be at home doing nothing or would be looking for work in the far away city. The Cooking School has given her the very real chance to fulfill her own potential.”

Adelari Ndlovu – a past student

Adelari is one of the 8 students selected to participate in the 2nd Singita Cooking School program, which commenced in the latter part of 2007. After leaving school he had sought work and had managed to get a casual position as a gardener at a lodge in the Kruger Park. His home is also in Welverdient, where his mother raised him and his 10 siblings completely on her own. As such there were no funds available for any further education. He is a shy and retiring young man but the selection panel chose him because of his obvious determination to get ahead. He had a real interest in working in the kitchen which was awakened when working at the lodge. Another point that impressed the selection panel was his commitment to his local community. He was personally campaigning for the installation of running water and electricity to his village. (This is reportedly about to become a reality!) Since commencing the program he has shown a real tenacity and commitment that augurs well for his future.

To date:

Since its opening in January 2007, the Singita School of Cooking has had 14 students complete its course. Of these, Singita has absorbed 6 of them into its own kitchens. Tskakani Mathebula, a student from the very first intake, was voted as Employee of the Month at Singita Sabi Sands. Other students have been assisted to find employment in other lodges, with several of them currently working in lodge kitchens. Yet others have gone on to continue their studies still further.

A contribution?

The Singita Cooking School was made possible by Singita’s practical commitment (funding, expertise and resources) to making a difference to the lives of local, unemployed youth and, in no small part, to the financial contributions made by some of its concerned guests. Such funding helps ensure both the sustainability of the program and determines the number of students the School can accommodate.

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