October 29, 2019

An Immersive Education

Internships at Le Calabash are designed to immerse the learners in the French culinary culture and to bring their knowledge back home to South Africa to share.

In 2018, Bongani Hlatshwayo was one the three young Chefs selected for a six-week internship at Le Calabash with Chefs Sidney and Alison Bond at Le Calabash in the Loire Valley of France. “During my six weeks I got to experience the culinary culture of the French people –  from farming, to their unique cooking methods which have been used for centuries,” says Bongani. “As my mentor, Chef Sidney always used these three words: fresh, seasonal and local. He says that in order to be a successful Chef, you need to keep these words in mind and always keep things simple.”

Hope Mdakane is another Le Calabash intern who spent six weeks learning the French way, guided and supported along his journey by Chefs Alison and Sidney. “To be honest, France was not what I expected – it exceeded my expectations. I felt really inspired by how people in France actually live. The way they do things, in terms of coming to support local farmers and the use of fresh produce and local, seasonal ingredients. I was wowed by that,” Hope says.

The French Way

“On my way to the country side of Loire Valley, I noticed that there are many small farms,  and Chef Sidney explained that many were family owned and they supply local shops and also sell their fresh produce to the public on market days.”

It is this sense of community, collaboration, and pride in French produce that the Bonds try and instil in their young protegees.

“Most people, including some Chefs, grow up in urban areas with little or no awareness of when and where various foods are produced. Imports from around the globe ensure that supermarket shelves look the same week in and week out. For us at Le Calabash, good cooking is about promoting an understanding of food seasons,” says Chef Sidney.

Why Fresh, Seasonal and Local is Better

  • A reduction in the energy needed to grow and transport the produce we use to prepare meals.
  • Ensuring that we don’t pay exorbitant prices for scarce ingredients or produce that has come from far away.
  • Supporting the local economy, especially regional farmers.
  • Reconnecting with the cycles of nature and acknowledging the passing of time.

A Life-Changing Trip to Rungis

With a rich millennium-old history, Rungis Market is one of the famous places of French gastronomic heritage, and a well-known landmark. Spread over 234 hectares, Rungis Market offers a large proportion of French agricultural and food products. Market gardeners and arboriculturalists directly sell their produce at the Rungis ‘Carreau des Producteurs’ (Producer’s Sector), along with wholesalers who regularly organise expos for regional products.

“My trip to Rungis market forever changed the way I look at ingredients,” says Bongani, Rungis is packed with fresh, seasonal and local produce from fruits and vegetables to poultry, beef, veal, pork and seafood, many chefs from France and abroad make sure they got their fresh produce from Rungis, which made me think about how to order or buy for my dishes at work and at home. Fortunately we have a herb garden at my current workplace which I fully take advantage of. Now I’m only buying and ordering what’s only in season, fresh and most importantly local. By doing so, it improved the quality of my dishes and also by buying local produce helps small businesses and local farmers.”

“Now as a Chef, I’ve grown a lot and experienced a lot during my internship, I’ve fallen in love with the way France takes pride in their culinary culture, and has definitely influenced me to be a better chef,” says Bongani.

Paying it Forward

“We don’t offer these internships for accolades or recognition”, says Chef Sidney. “The skills and wisdom that they learn everyday here in France will be instilled in them for a lifetime. These young Chefs leave here with a complete understanding of seasonality, balance, freshness, quality and community. We hope that they share their knowledge with their peers in South Africa, so that this philosophy spreads throughout the culinary community.”

But while Chefs Sidney and Alison do cover significant portions of the costs of these internships by themselves, they rely on the support of the international community to keep bringing talented, underprivileged Chefs to Le Calabash. To learn more about supporting this incredibly important and rewarding initiative, contact the Bonds by emailing contact@lecalabash.fr or calling the South African Chefs Association

Le Calabash’s Top Ten Tips for Culinary Success

  1. Source your suppliers carefully – demand the best within your budget and aspirations, and only serve dishes at their best.
  2. Use local produce where possible.
  3. Keep an eye on the seasons. Although many ingredients are available year-round, they tend to be at their best for only one season.
  4. Cook real food from whole, raw ingredients.
  5. Keep it simple, be true to the ingredients. Don’t get creative for the sake of it.
  6. Always ask – how can I improve this dish?
  7. Taste the dishes you create. And remember that a diner is eating more than just a forkful. Is the dish too heavy? Too rich? Or just plain boring?
  8. Keep a sense of balance. Don’t overcook, don’t undercook, don’t over-season or under-season, etc.

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