The Canapé and the Elephant in the Room

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015
Photo courtesy Chefs Who Share
Photo courtesy Chefs Who Share

A canapé, an elephant and an inspirational black South African chef are in a room together. Joke or true story? Read on…
In South Africa, there’s a prize that could change a young African chef’s life…winning it means a trip to Europe, a gig in a Michelin-starred restaurant and a VIP visit to Moët et Chandon. Just over two weeks ago, Jamie-Lee Saunders, a 22-year-old commis chef from Grootbos Private Nature Reserve won the inaugural ‘Chefs Who Share – Young Chef’ title. Her ticket to the prize…her top-ranking canapé, a pink peppercorn macaroon with duck liver pâté and candied apples.
The Young Chef award is an initiative of Chefs who Share – the ART of Giving, an annual charity dinner that this year, raised R2 million for youth development programmes in South Africa (the Make a Difference Leadership Foundation and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation). For the dinner, 14 of South Africa’s top chefs work in seven teams of two along with a dedicated sommelier, with each culinary duo creating a unique four-course menu for 36 guests. This means seven different menus in one setting: a challenge of logistics and nerves.
Each of this year’s seven Young Chef finalists was paired with one of these expert teams. But before they started prepping, the Young Chefs were introduced to the media, along with their canapés.They also spent a morning cooking at the Amy Biehl community kitchen in Rondebosch, where as part of the ‘Veggie Box Initiative’, they worked together with staff of the Masiphumelele project to develop tasty and nutritious meals from the contents of ‘Veggie Boxes’ for 150 children from a local township.
Now to the elephant in the room. The reality that uncomfortably shifted my focus from where it should have been — merit and hard work — to lack of diversity.

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I’m unsettled, not because the competition had a white winner, but because five out of seven of the finalists were white, in a country in which non-whites make up 90% of the population. Yes, it was a more diverse line-up than it would have been 21 years ago — and nearly half were women — but we still have far to go. And while talent matters, so does diversity.
It’s not the fault of the organisers, who “invited the country’s 75 top restaurants to put forward their most talented and promising young chefs (aged between 18-29 years and working in a position ranging from demi chef to junior sous chef), who are keen to fast-track their careers and make a name for themselves. To enter the award, the up-and-coming chefs had to create an innovative canapé to be served with a glass of Moët et Chandon Impérial as a culinary highlight of the Chefs who Share gala evening.”

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Chefs who Share covered all travel expenses and accommodations in Cape Town, so cost was not a barrier to entry. There were 43 entries, from which seven finalists were chosen, on the basis of their canapé only. The judging panel was comprised of industry experts, from chefs to a cooking school vice principal to food editors. Ultimately, the winner was chosen based on the success of her canapé, as well as her professionalism in the kitchen (as demonstrated during the cooking of the dinner) and personality (her ability to represent her country overseas).
Jamie-Lee won this competition fair and square, and deserves every kudo and perk. Yet for me, it’s sad to see that 21 years after the death of apartheid, high end restaurant cooking is still so white dominated. Within the industry at large, black kitchen staff far outnumber whites, but in the country’s top restaurants, which are disproportionally concentrated in the Western Cape, chefs remain mostly white. While there are more cooking schools than ever, and the number of black students studying culinary arts has skyrocketed, there are few celebrated black chefs.
I am not just leaking liberal white guilt here; I speak from experience. My husband and I ran a restaurant in Cape Town for six years back in the ’90s. It is a huge investment of time and money to groom young chefs, and they themselves must have the spark and desire to be great in order to make it. As an executive chef, you are only as good as your staff, and when your business and reputation are on the line, it’s almost impossible to take chances with cooks who are not 100% trained and capable.

Yet in 2015, it’s disheartening that we’re still looking so white. Who’s at fault?

The restaurant and hospitality industry, for not being more open-minded and nurturing to potential black talent? There are many people within the industry who are working hard to address this — like Tracey Younghusband, a chef on the Young Chef Award jury, who is involved in identifying budding chefs and placing them in apprenticeships in hotels.
Or is this phenomenon a shadow of apartheid and consequence of poverty? Many young South African blacks still have no exposure to restaurants and certainly to fine dining – it is out of their economic realm. They come from a food culture largely based on subsistence. And, the need to have an income (that can support them and extended family) is often the single most motivating factor in their lives, through no fault of their own. For it’s rare for someone to be so passionate about food that he would work practically for free, if his family is hungry.
Or is the problem more of a general malaise…the perception that things should come easier than they do, in this age of fast money and celebrity? Or, that the South African “cuisine” cooked in restaurants is just not ‘black’ enough, in that it doesn’t reflect or speak to the African soul or culture?

Or am I being unrealistic in thinking that we should be farther along after 21 years of freedom? It’s not like this is the only industry that lacks diversity.

I don’t know the answer – but I suspect the cause is a combination of these– just as I suspect that after reading this post, someone will accuse me of being a racist, because I am white, talking about blacks. Whatever the cause, I think South Africa needs to do better. Cape Town is now known worldwide for its cuisine. Shouldn’t we also become known for having many top chefs who are non-white, creating world-class cuisine from local ingredients through their own cultural lens?

In a nutshell, tansformation and upliftment matter, and it takes hard work and sacrifice on everyone’s part to make them happen.
Which brings me to the inspirational black South African chef: Lentswe Bhengu, the Brand Ambassador for the Young Chef Award, who I interviewed before the final competition. Ironically, Lentswe, who was born in Kwazulu-Natal, is probably better known outside than inside South Africa – he is the charismatic chef and host of Africa on a Plate, a food/travelogue on the Africa Channel, broadcast in the USA (but not South Africa). The programme is a showcase for contemporary Africa, with Lentswe taking his audience on a journey through the continent, learning how to make local dishes as he goes along, and has covered locations across South Africa, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Pemba Island, Nigeria, Lagos, and Abuja.

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One of 19 children, Lentswe studied marketing and worked for 5 years in investments before deciding to become a chef. “Food was sacred in my Mom and Dad’s home…we all sat down at the table for three meals every day. Everyone had their role to play in mealtime. I used to tail my Mom around the kitchen, and before long, I instinctively knew what she needed before she asked…if she needed a pan, I’d have it in my hand.” He even tells me the story about how when his parents met: his father was working in a shop, kneading dough for vetkoek in a basin below the counter, and when his mother walked in the shop, he raised his hands in excitement, the strings of dough still attached to his fingers.
By 25, Lentswe knew he wasn’t happy in the corporate world. His father told him: “When you are at a crossroads in life, you need to sit down and meet with yourself, and answer those tough questions.” In 2010, he enrolled in cooking school, and for the next several years he worked for various high end restaurants in Cape Town.
“I always knew what I wanted out of each, which was to learn what each chef did best, whether it was bread or seafood or the importance of mise en place.” Africa on a Plate started out as a drunken promise: he and an Afrikaans filmmaker made a YouTube video of a sheep head being prepared on a Langa street. It was so much fun that they made more. The show was picked up by MWEB as a web series, and then by The Africa Channel. Throughout, Lentswe has been blown away by “the generosity of people and restaurants across Africa. There is nothing more humbling than travelling in Africa, and the humbling of yourself makes the world a much bigger place.”
“It grates my carrots that this show is on in the States, but not here. I want someone in Khayelitsha to see me in Nigeria, and learn about the place and the food. If I’m not doing this for my own country, then why am I doing it? I want to inspire black boys and girls to do more with their lives.”
Lentswe is just as inspiring as he is charismatic and accomplished for a young age. Which is why he was chosen as Brand Ambassador for the ‘Young Chef’ Competition…and chief mentor to the finalists. His thoughts on young South African chefs? “There is lots of talent in South Africa. Unfortunately, a lot of people just want the nice things; they don’t want to do the work. I tell young people that they need to put in the work and learn from different chefs: to make what’s yours, better.”

 

I hope the year soon comes when Lentswe will be in the room with a more diverse group of finalists; that’s when the elephant will have left the building.

Disclosure: I received a media pack at the briefing, which included a Chefs who Share linen cloth, a mini grater, two slabs of Frey chocolate, and a Mercedes-Benz pen, as well as several small gifts after the Gala.

Written by Ilana Sharlin Stone

I'm a food writer, blogger and former chef who found her umami in Cape Town, South Africa.

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2 thoughts on “The Canapé and the Elephant in the Room

  1. Even though this article has a slightly negative slant, I’m still incredibly proud of my niece’s achievement! Proud Aunt.

    1. Hi Louise. I think your niece’s achievement is fantastic too and I’m sure well-deserved! I’d just like to see more diversity amongst the competition for the award. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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