One&Only Cape Town grooms future chef, sommelier

There are young people in South Africa who believe that life is not all about where you come from but the road you wish to follow in attaining a dream. These are the same young people who believe the difference between a dream and a goal is that you have to work unbelievably hard to turn the former into reality.

Add “opportunity” to the mix and it is easy to understand why Michele Jeftha and Tinashe Nyamudoka of One&Only Cape Town recognise the potential for this year’s inaugural Inter-Hotel Challenge as their chance to be regarded as among the country’s top up-and-coming chefs and sommeliers.

Ironically, as teenagers, neither of them saw themselves embarking on careers in hospitality.

Twenty-seven-year-old Michele (originally from Belhar in Cape Town) dreamed of being a lawyer. Tinashe, the same age and from Zimbabwe, pictured himself becoming an accountant. He had never tasted wine before landing his first job as a waiter in Cape Town in 2008.

Both have been at One&Only Cape Town since the resort styled hotel opened four years ago.

The two will represent One&Only Cape Town in the “competition” that pits fast-track chefs and trainee sommeliers from ten of the Cape’s top hotels against one another, while at the same time showing the world the quality of service to which visitors to Cape Town and beyond can look forward.

Each hotel will be paired with a Cape Legends wine estate. Michele will be required to present a three-course menu that best complements Le Bonheur Wines selected by Tinashe.

Cape Legends is the specialty fine wine marketing arm of Distell, the world’s tenth largest marketer of wines. Its portfolio comprises established international award-winning estates from throughout the Cape Winelands. Le Bonheur (“Happiness”) is a Stellenbosch estate that was established in the late 18th century.

Also taking part in the challenge are the hotel / estate pairings of Bushman’s Kloof (Lomond), Cape Grace (Plaisir de Merle), Mount Nelson (Uitkyk), Queen Victoria (Durbanville Hills), Radisson Blu (Fleur du Cap), Taj Cape Town (Zonnebloem), Royal Portfolio (Stellenzicht), Twelve Apostles (Neethlingshof) and Vineyard (Desiderius and Pongracz) hotels. The Inter-Hotel Challenge is the brainchild of online food portal Showcook.com’s Annette Kesler, a passionate champion of skills development in the hospitality industry and a legend of South African culinary publishing.

“This initiative is unique in that it is both a competition and a collaboration,” says Kessler. “It is a competition in the sense that each hotel and their representatives will be striving to be the best among peers. It is a collaboration not only in the pairing of hotels and wine estates but also in its purpose of promoting Cape Town as a destination for discerning tourists.”

For Michele and Tinashe, it is an opportunity to move out of the giant shadows cast by One&Only Cape Town’s Executive Chef and Sommelier, Jason Millar and Luvo Ntezo, and further their careers.

“You would find me in the kitchen even as a little girl, cooking with my mother and grandmother. My mom died when I was 12 years old and I had to take responsibility for the household,” says Michele. “I had to ensure there was food on the table for my six-year-old sister, an aunt and my granny as well as my dad when he came home from work.

“I cannot say that I had a normal childhood where I could hang out with friends. Life was tough – I would not wish it on anyone – but I can honestly say it made me stronger and helped me become who I am today.”

Despite the adversity, she says, her love for cooking grew. So did her regard for law.

“I had in mind, when I turned 18, that I would study cheffing and then go on to do law. Not a chance: this job consumes you.”

Michele enrolled for a one-year course at the Institute for Hospitality Education in 2005. “The Institute provided textbooks and a job at a guesthouse in Bantry Bay. I only had to attend class twice a week.”

Working at the guesthouse, she says, was a great experience. “There was only myself – a trainee – and a head chef looking after 12 rooms. It meant I was there virtually all day, doing almost everything.”

Studies completed, Michele applied for a one-year working-visa for the United Kingdom and saved every penny made for the trip of a lifetime.

“It was an eye-opener. I really love South Africa but I had to leave it for somewhere like England and work in a very big kitchen to appreciate what was required of me to succeed as a chef.”

She returned in October 2009. When One&Only Cape Town opened its doors six months later, she was on staff as a demi-chef for one of its two flagship restaurants, the Gordon Ramsay-signature Maze.

Promoted to chef de partie 18 months later, Michele is currently running the hotel’s meat section.

“It’s a really busy life. I don’t think I would have been able to carry on this long if I didn’t love my job the way I do.

“Being a chef at a top hotel doesn’t leave you much room for a private life. You’re at your busiest when everyone else, including your family and friends, is relaxing; evenings, weekends, Christmas, Easter …”.

The Inter-Hotel Challenge is the first competition in which Michele is taking part. “Obviously it’s an opportunity for me to get my name out there but there’s a lot of pressure on Tinashe and myself”.

“Not only are we representing ourselves, we also have the pride of Jason and One&Only Cape Town to live up to. It’s exciting but daunting.”

Tinashe grew up, he admits, “in a culture that knows nothing about wine”. As such, his five-year ongoing learning experience has been incredibly intense. “During my first interview for waiter, I didn’t even know you got red and white grapes!”

Tinashe, however, showed enthusiasm and a willingness to learn – two character traits that continue to stand him in good stead.

“They gave me a chance and, since then, I’ve done one wine course after another. I am putting myself through the Cape Wine Academy and, hopefully, I’ll be getting my official Cape Sommelier badges at the end of this year.”

Tinashe’s job interview to join One&Only Cape Town as a wine steward was cut short when the food and beverage manager at the time quickly realised the young Zimbabwean knew his subject well.

“He sent me straight to the sommelier. Since then I’ve worked with sommelier veterans Andre Bekker, Eric Botha and Luvo Ntezo. All of them had completely different personalities and I like to think I’ve taken a little from each of them to develop a style of my own.”

He explains his continued thirst for knowledge: “There were almost 6000 bottles of wine when I got here. The winelist was more than 40 pages long. Every time I went into the loft, I found there was something more I had to read up on.”

And is his family in Zimbabwe surprised about the direction his life has taken? Tinashe laughs: “They can’t believe I drink for a living!”

One&Only Cape Town’s Executive Chef Jason Millar hails the Inter-Hotel Challenge as “a great opportunity for young South Africans to showcase the talents they have acquired in hotel kitchens or on restaurant floors. “A lot of people in this industry qualify with a certificate, travel abroad for a few years and then return with the expectation of becoming a sous-chef. That’s not the reality of this industry. My impression is that South Africa has become a real hot-spot for epicureans. The food that is being developed on a daily basis is outstanding. His competition focuses on the young chefs and wine stewards who have stayed in the country and worked their ways – sometimes painfully – up their respective ladders.”

“Michele,” Jason adds further,” has worked by my side for a long time and I believe she has the mental fortitude to advance her career through this competition.”

Jason says the challenge “is not about trying to be fancy. I think we just need to get back to basics and focus on flavour and good cooking techniques.”

“Tinashe”, says Jason, “is amazing. He’s got class, he’s got brilliant knowledge but – most importantly – he’s constantly trying to better himself. To all those sommeliers out there, I can only say: ‘Watch out!’”

  • photograph: (L-R)  Inter Hotel Challenge -Tinashe Nyamudoka, Jason Miller and Michelle Jeftha

Author: Muzi Mohale

Hi there, am your host and I blog about the tourism industry in South Africa. You’re also welcome to contribute your expert content on matters affecting the industry. You can reach me on muzi[at]tourismedition.com

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