October 31, 2019

Education – The Foundations of a Craft

Aspiring chefs and others who are drawn to culinary crafts have a wealth of options available to them.

Tertiary education programmes that cater to students from all walks of life can be found in South Africa, from gilded institutions with esteemed international connections, to humble colleges and boutique studios.

The Rise of the Private Chef

Stephen Billingham was formerly the Education Director of the South Africa Chefs Association and has been successfully training Professional Chefs in industry since 1994 and has worked with, sat on boards, committees and SGBs for awarding bodies for over 20 years such as the HITB, Theta, Cathseta and the TWG of the recently formed QCTO and has seen many changes over the last 25 years.

He is currently the owner of HTA and Past President of the South African Chefs Association and is an honorary member of City and Guilds. As such, he is uniquely qualified to comment on how the culinary education landscape has changed in recent years.

“Over the last two decades, there has been a tremendous increase in private Chef training schools throughout South Africa. This is due to an increase in popularity of the Chef profession globally,” says Stephen. “The role of a Chef has been popularized by television and a handful of chefs reaching rock star status internationally, a status never dreamt of before by professional cooks and chefs of generations gone by.”

Stephen believes that there is also a constant shortage of trained and certified chefs worldwide, which further increases the need and ensures employment for Chef graduates in a strong employment market locally and abroad.

In Demand

At face value it appears that the most in-demand qualification is the one with the biggest title, shortest timeframe, highest price and with international recognition, thus painting a picture that the graduate would gain the quickest route into the world of work, the doors to instant success, and untold fame and fortune. However, as in all trades with vocational qualifications, we must realise that quicker and most expensive is not always better.  

“We are entering a new era of occupational trade qualifications which will go some way to standardize both the curriculum and the time frame for achievement, but unfortunately never the price tag of such training,” says Stephen.

In recent years, 1000 Hills Chefs School has taken its Advanced Diploma course up a notch – learners have the chance to run the on-site deli as a business. Real income statements, staff placement, wastage and disciplinary issues are shared with students as they learn how to run a real food business.  The course remains popular because it is relevant and offers maximum employability to graduates.

The Culinary Job Market in SA

Stephen Hickmore, the co-founder of Hickmore Recruitment, which specialises in the hospitality industry, feels that the culinary job market is still vibrant and ever-changing and that there are plenty of opportunities for graduates and newly qualified chefs. “The more senior positions are a bit scarce at the moment. I am finding that people are in a conservative mood and hanging onto their positions. With all the negative news on retrenchments and economy tightening people tend to ‘batten down the hatches’ and stay where they are rather than risking a move. This has a knock-on effect with less vacant positions becoming available,” says Stephen.

As for the demand for new skills, Stephen says he has seen the rise of the ‘super specialist’. Clients are looking for people who have real excellence in a certain area:  Pastry chefs are a good example, along with Sushi, Halaal and Vegan.

As for the international demand for South African-trained chefs, Stephen says that this is still great. “There is a worldwide shortage of trade skills internationally, Chefs are part of that. I would encourage any recently graduated young chef to gain experience overseas. Then bring those skills back to SA,” he says.

Keeping Abreast of an Ever-Changing Industry

The culinary world changes daily. The food industry is a trendy industry, consumers constantly want what’s ‘new’.  Limpopo Chefs Academy works tirelessly to ensure all lecturers are on top of food trends to share their knowledge. “We experiment with food trends and get industry Chefs to do cooking demos, learning material is constantly updated and revised, quarterly meetings are held to discuss learning material updates, and the lecturers often get passionate about adding certain things into the syllabus. We are very ‘socially’ active too with students and share things with them on social media to keep them updated about what’s going on in the culinary world, both here on our soil and internationally,” says Tommie Hurter, Principal at Limpopo Chefs Academy.

At Limpopo Chefs Academy, every decision made is for the benefit of the students. “We constantly upgrade and improve facilities and equipment. Our students have 24-hour support on WhatsApp for school or even personal issues they might have. We take interest in each student and engage with them as a family would,” says Tommie.

Once a student graduates from LCA, the support continues. “We stay in touch with students that are overseas, we help create beautiful CVs to ensure they get jobs, we assist with job placement and we are their ears when they have good news to share too.”

The Swiss Hotel School in Randburg opened its doors in 1995. The curriculum and educational philosophy were modelled on that of the Hotel School Belvoirpark in Zurich where the founder, JüRG Vontobel had been Director for 10 years.

Enrolling small numbers of students each year the school quickly found favour with the Johannesburg hotel industry for the competence and “can-do” attitude of its students. Returning each year to his native Switzerland, Vontobel was able to maintain the currency of the educational offering adding elements and refinements each year. Through maintaining his contacts with Swiss Hoteliers and immigration authorities he was also able to establish work placement opportunities for second-year students. Graduates of the School have been singularly successful in securing career opportunities both locally and overseas and form a growing reference group for new students.

Capsicum Culinary Studio has also evolved its education offerings to keep up with an ever-changing culinary industry by introducing an Advanced Culinary Arts programme accredited by the QCTO. It also supplies students with online content (with video tutorials by Lobster Ink). “We’ve put a lot of research into culinary and hospitality trends,” says Janette Engelbrecht, Marketing Manager. “We’ve included content about sustainability and the environmental impact of food on the society in the curriculum. Capsicum also teaches the students entrepreneurship, mobile food photography and branding/networking skills.”    

Capsicum’s most popular courses include the QCTO Advanced Culinary Arts programme (3 years full time) and the Professional Chef programme (1 year). Both have industry placements as part of the course. Recently, the company has added the Food and Beverage programme and the Fundamental Chef programme.

Established in 2004, 1000 Hills Chef School is unique in offering one all-inclusive course that has evolved to cover every aspect of the culinary industry. From food preparation to customer service and brewing beer to business management, students graduate with a comprehensive skill set that enables them to take on any position anywhere.  The school developed the course from two diplomas over two years and now packs in four diplomas that create capable, qualified chefs and future entrepreneurs who understand every aspect of a culinary business.

“We have a pretty unique offering with just one extremely comprehensive course. Our approach is a little different too – we call our school a family, recognising that some of the best hospitality teams form close bonds in this highly pressured industry,” says Kirstie Leeper, Marketing Manager at 1000 Hills Chef School. “It takes a special person to become a chef and offer the ultimate nourishment to people, and we aim to cultivate a supportive learning environment that nurtures capable young chefs. It probably helps that all of our lecturers are themselves graduates of 1000 Hills Chef School who bring their international experience and happy history to every class.”

1000 Hills has also added courses with passionate expert guest lecturers – Craig Charity of Lineage Coffee and former Africa Barista Champion trains the students as baristas; Laurie Smorthwaite of Abingdon Estates teaches the WSET wine course and introduces learners to viticulture at the first KZN wine farm; and Megan Gemmell of Clockwork Breweries teaches the art of craft brewing. As the only private institution that is invited to participate in the annual ABInbev Intervaristy Brewing Competition, 1000 Hills students hold their own with peers who earn engineering or microbiology degrees. This focus on beverages is reflective of trends in the industry that encompass the full dining experience – and account for as much as 30% of income in a restaurant.

At Celo Training Academy, the training philosophy is through industry simulation. Learners learn and work using industrial equipment and are exposed to live environments as often as possible through functions and events. With an employment rate of more than 62% for all students over the past four years, Celo’s training methodology and programmes have proved to be very successful. The company’s training focus is on laying the right foundation for learners to enter the hospitality workplace.

In 2020, Celo will launch Celo Training Academy at the JHB Expo Centre. “This academy will be based on the same methodologies and programmes and our aim is to provide a more affordable Hospitality training solution to school leavers and youth. The Academy will provide both paying learner options as well as a bursary programme,” says Lehan Botha.

“Celo has a number of industry partners that include the leading hotel groups and retailers in South Africa. With a formal exit strategy, we not only ensure practical placements for all our students but we also have a recruitment drive for each group with our industry partners.”

Francois Ferreira Academy has added the Level 3 Foundation Diploma in Tourism and Hospitality Management to broaden the field of qualification in the Hospitality Industry and to create a wider selection for the student to choose from. “By adding the Advanced Diploma in Food Preparation and Cooking (Supervision), we give our students a wider perspective of kitchen supervision and the various avenues they can take within the industry,” says Donia Pennelli-De Witt, Sales and Marketing at Francois Ferreira.

Do You Have What it Takes?

Aspiring Chefs need to have a serious passion for food and the hospitality industry. They need to have an actual interest in food trends and flavour combinations,” says Tommie Hurter, of Limpopo Chefs Academy. “To become a Chef, you have to be tough and learn not to take things personally. You have to have the stamina to push through long shifts. Above all else, respect for authority and enthusiasm to learn something new every single day from accomplished Chefs around you.”

Stephen Hickmore interjects with a quick reality check: “There are no jobs for TV Chefs, celebrity food bloggers and reality show cooks. Don’t pin your hopes on those and get a real job. Nothing replaces hard graft in a great kitchen with an excellent mentor,” says Stephen. “I think any aspiring chef needs to have the good all-round ability. The clever young Chef will become a super-specialist and use social media to get known for their unique skill. Learn how to manage a kitchen. Employers don’t just want a good cook, they need business-orientated chefs with creativity as well as strong financial and leadership skills.”

A Call to Action

Stephen Billingham believes that we cannot and should not solely concentrate on private and governmental schools solely aimed at training and graduating young people wishing to enter into our ever-growing industry when the biggest need for skills development and advancement is currently the thousands of currently employed workforce holding our industry together.

“Our industry is made up of hundreds of thousands of cooks, chefs and caterers that are no doubt qualified by experience and more than capable to do the job but may lack some “fundamentals in knowledge” and of course, a recognized qualification to allow them a promotion or progression through the almost military ranks of our industry into supervisory Chef or Executive Chef / management positions,” says Stephen.

“I believe that greater emphasis needs to be focused on recognizing and awarding current skills obtained by the age-old tradition of know-how and experience.  Although a number of new qualifications for chefs and cooks have been developed and submitted to SAQA through the QCTO, we are still falling short on high impact, short courses that reduce the barrier of access to our industry for the unemployed youth in South Africa. Going back to meaningful, recognized 3 to 6-month short course, skills training programmes that would give base skills to allow people to obtain entry-level employment in our industry from fast food to 5-star,” Stephen concludes.

A Word to the Wise

Stephen Billingham suggests that the quality of the private and governmental institutions offering Chef training is inconsistent. “While some comply with the high levels demanded by the Industry and awarding bodies, many fall short. Although accredited, they simply don’t offer the same quality education, facilities and depth of experience required to fully succeed as a professional chef in any professional kitchen in any part of the world,” he says.

Chef schools range from purpose-built culinary / hospitality training centres, fully compliant to law and local municipality regulations to make-shift kitchens and classrooms in office blocks and renovated houses that do not comply to municipality regulations and laws.  This leaves ill-informed, ‘new career’ parents at a deficit when choosing the right culinary school for their child  

“It is my belief that the phenomenal growth in further education providers within our sector, is also based on the majority of our industry, the employer, dramatically reducing their own in-house apprenticeships limiting direct access to industry for the school leaver or unemployed market and in today’s world have become reliant on these newfound cookery schools to provide a cheaper or complimentary workforce rather than invest in and develop their own through in-house apprenticeships and job creation initiatives,” says Stephen.

Hospitality Internships

OVC is proud to be working hand in hand with its local and international partners to offer young South Africans the opportunity to work in the USA for one year on a hospitality internship program at leading resorts and hotels throughout the USA.

The programme training plans are put together on a rotational basis during the 12 months, so interns will work within different departments and roles throughout the resorts to gain as much knowledge and experience in their chosen field. Upon return to South Africa, interns can use this international work experience and continue to climb the ladder within the industry locally.

OVC partners with unique local funders for this opportunity and these partners pay all the costs up front barring an application/commitment fee, and whilst working interns pay this upfront cost back to them from their monthly stipend.

Program Objectives:

  • Practical hands-on training in the chosen field of study or work experience
  • Cultural Exchange – to learn about America and to share SA culture with America
  • Learn the American hospitality industry from a 4 or 5* resort and hotel in the USA and bring this knowledge back to SA
  • 12 Month placement only

Typical Internship Positions:

  • Culinary/ Food and Beverage/ Front Office and Rotational positions available
  • Minimum of 32 working hours per week and more depending on the season
  • Minimum of $10 per hour
  • 4 and 5 star hotels
  • Hotel groups such as Marriott/Hilton/ Ritz Carlton/Omni and many more popular brands
  • Placements throughout the USA
  • Shared housing close to work – two or more interns will share a room while on the program, apartments are charged per person for the room
  • Transport, Food, personal items and any other emergencies not covered by insurance are for your own expense
  • Loan repayment per month
  • This program is not a money-making opportunity and should not be seen as an opportunity to send money back home


1. Must be a current full-time student at a post-secondary ministerially recognized institute outside the USA


2. Must have completed studies and if no valid work experience must enter the US within 12 months of last exam date


3. If graduated more then 12 months ago then the applicant must have a qualification with at least 12 months’ work experience in their field of study


4. Have at least five years of work experience outside the United States in a specific occupation

In Addition:

  • Oldest Age At The Time Of Application: 29.5 years old
    • Oldest Age To Enter America: Enter prior 30th Birthday
    • Proficient in English
    • SA passport holders
    • Finances available to pay programme costs
    • Good budgeting skills
    • Hard working, efficient, committed to a 12-month placement

Read About An Immersive Education here.

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