The dreams of young aspiring chefs have been put on hold while their training institution faces an uncertain future, with its possible closure looming as a result of government lockdown regulations enforced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sixteen trainee chefs from the Eziko Cooking and Catering School in Langa, Cape Town, were scheduled to begin three months of practical training at Harbour House at the V&A Waterfront before graduating in June. And then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, forcing governments around the world to put lockdowns in place to slow the rate of infection to a manageable level. In South Africa, most businesses, including restaurants and hotels, are partly or fully closed.
If the coronavirus is not contained, Eziko, which is made up of Eziko Restaurant and the school, may be forced to close. The Eziko Cooking and Catering School is the only place for chefs to train in the township.
Among the 16 trainee chefs are Sesethu Gwampi, 19, from Langa; Thandisizwe Williams, 25, from Khayelitsha; and Unathi Mthonjeni, 22, from Makhaza. They fear their dreams of becoming professional chefs might be dashed if they stay locked up and idle at home.
“Our life is stuck now. We are sitting home doing nothing. We were supposed to be out there preparing menus for one of the top-notch hotels,” said Gwampi.
Williams said he was looking forward to his graduation in June. “I am really disappointed. I was looking forward to becoming a qualified chef.”
The Covid-19 lockdown has had the opposite effect on Mthonjeni’s future to the one he envisaged. “I joined the school so that I can get off the streets. I wanted to keep myself busy. But look, now I am sitting in the township. This is the last thing I wanted.”
Heart of the home
Eziko manager Eric Bingo fears that all aspiring chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds will “suffer if their only skills development” institution closes. Founded by director Victor Mguqulwa in 1996, Eziko is named for a fireplace or hearth in isiXhosa. Eziko is a place located in the centre of the home. It is a place where food is cooked and the family gathers for dinner.
The Eziko Cooking and Catering School provides vocational skills to unemployed youth from impoverished backgrounds. The Eziko Restaurant offers the students first-hand experience working in the catering industry.
The centre initially took 15 students. But as demand increased, they were compelled to enrol 30 students. The cooking course runs for six months. After that, Mguqulwa and Bingo place the students in Spar supermarket kitchens, restaurants and hotels.
The institution has five staff members, including chefs and an administrator. It is a registered non-profit organisation and guides take tourists to the Eziko Restaurant to taste traditional African cuisine. It has won numerous awards and former president Nelson Mandela gave Eziko a certificate of appreciation of their African food when he visited in 2000, which is something of great sentimental value to the restaurant.
Mguqulwa and Bingo, who are both qualified chefs, teach the students in a spacious room with tables and chairs for theory and a kitchen for practicals. Eziko has produced many accomplished chefs over the years, one of them being Ntlalo Jordan, the chef and owner of Jordan Ways of Cooking in Langa.
Jordan qualified at Eziko in 2006, after finishing matric at Khulani High School, also in Langa. He said it would be a bleak day for aspiring chefs from impoverished backgrounds if the institution were to close.
“That will affect those children from poor backgrounds who would like to pursue a career in cooking, but cannot afford expensive culinary schools. Eziko gives opportunity to those with passion and love for cooking to realise their potential.”
He said the experience he gained after attending Eziko enabled him to open his restaurant. “I did my three-months internship at Cape Town International Convention Centre. After that, I have worked in different places gaining experience. I even went to as far as Liberia in 2018. And on my return, I decided to open my own restaurant.”
Limited student numbers
Bingo says they might not be able to produce more chefs if the Covid-19 lockdown continues for too long. “As of Monday [11 May], we will reopen with only 13 students. That is because we have to abide by social distance rules. We wanted to take 20 at least. But we cannot because of space.
“If this situation continues, [the] hospitality industry will be the most affected. This will affect those children from the townships who want to become chefs,” he said.
Former Eziko student Venise Crossney has been a pastry chef at the Cape Grace Hotel at the V&A Waterfront for four years. She said the dreams of many aspiring chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds would be shattered if the institute closed.
“There are lots of young people out there who are looking for opportunities to further their studies after school. Sometimes they are not financially stable to go to universities or colleges. Eziko gives you hope to better your future. They should try their best not to close. If it was not for Eziko, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I am very grateful for the cooking skills they taught me,” said Crossney.
Bingo said their unemployed trainee chefs were compounding their worries. “We are struggling as it is due to the lack of funds. And now I am worried because we are dealing with unemployed youth and our trainees are not employed.”
Enrollment criteria include cooking skills and passion. Bingo said they don’t require their students to have passed matric, as many children from the townships drop out of high school for various reasons.
“Not having matric does not mean someone cannot pursue his or her desired career. That is why we don’t focus on academic results. And besides, not everybody can be an academic. That is why there are vocational studies like a chef.”
Bingo hopes a good Samaritan or a donor can help the centre stay afloat. “There are five staff members here whose salaries depend on student fees. Not only that, but we also maintain the institution with these fees. We will have to adjust salaries as we are going to take only 13 students.”