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The advent of the MasterChef South Africa television series, due to air next month, has got everyone excited anew about the cooking industry and the newly-emerged celebrity chefs that we see on our TV screens.
Stephen Billingham, president of the SA Chefs Association, says the interest in the food industry as a career path has never been greater, with training institutions experiencing boom times.
“The reality is, of course, different to the perceptions shaped on TV,” Billingham warns, “and only a very few can go on to achieve celebrity status, but there is no doubt that, at this time, going into this industry is a wise career choice.”
That becoming a chef is thought of as a sexy career choice is borne out by the fact that applications at Billingham’s HTA School of Culinary Art have trebled in the last five years and courses are generally oversubscribed.
“Travel and tourism is growing, though that growth has not been as high as expected due to the global financial crisis. But it is growing nonetheless and qualified chefs are going to be a crucial requirement to meet that growth,” Billingham says.
And, of course, everyone has to eat, and food has to be prepared for them, so the demand for chefs will always grow as the population grows, making it a stable industry.
“Apart from creating celebrity chefs, what the exposure on TV has done is to raise the profile of the industry and to make the average viewer more aware of quality ingredients, variety and fine dining,” Billingham says.
“And as the public becomes more educated, it becomes more demanding, which increases the need for better qualified people preparing the food that they eat.”
So, apart from fancy hotels and restaurants, institutions that supply meals, such as hospitals, prisons, educational institutions and mass caterers are employing qualified chefs, opening up opportunities.
There is also a move towards “conscious cooking” – saving energy and getting the most out of ingredients, without waste. These are skills taught to new entrants to the profession.
Billingham warns it is hard work: “It’s a long, hard road. The training is demanding, the hours are inconvenient and, once you qualify, you generally have to start at the bottom and work your way up,” he says.
“Graduation from chefs’ school is not an automatic entry into the land of milk and honey. It is, however, an entry into the profession and having a professional diploma in food service will generally get you into a kitchen as a chef de partie (section chef), and you learn the ropes from there.
There is a diverse range of career opportunities open to graduates.
“I have always said true chefs are born not made, so it may not be for everyone. But the theoretical and practical knowledge a graduate has will open many doors, including those leading to careers in research and development; food photography and journalism; catering; food education, recipe and menu development etc.”
There is also the self-employment route. “We run a ‘township caterers’ course that is very popular,” Billingham says, “and it’s been reported there are 3 000 SMME businesses in food services in Soweto alone.”
The Chefs Association has been involved with the National Youth Chefs Programme run by the Department of Tourism. It trained 500 unemployed youths last year, and some are going into advanced programmes. Most of the others have been absorbed by industry, most commonly at the institutions where they did the practical component of their training.
Phase 2 of the programme rolls out this year.
“I guess my advice to young people is that whatever training you do has to ultimately lead to a job,” Billingham says. “So it’s better to look at some sort of vocational education that leads to entry into a profession. Cookery is one of those vocational routes, one with a proven record of absorbing the bulk of its new graduates.
The HTA school offers a range of courses, the central one being a two-year diploma. It also runs a bridging course for school-leavers who are interested in entering training later on and in-house courses for institutional caterers.
l Stephen Billingham is president of the SA Chefs Association, owner of the HTA School of Culinary Art and director of The Capital Hotel School. Contact him at 011 285 0937. Visit www.htatrain.co.za