Johannesburg - Just like many South Africans, Sims Kubeka has felt the agonising pain of having to put his dream aside due to a lack of finances.
The 26-year-old Soweto-born software developer was forced to put his dream of attending culinary school on hold as he was unable to pay for his studies.
Not willing to allow that to hold him back however, Kubeka did all he could to try and make it a reality.
He knuckled down and worked hard to find ways to make it happen, even starting a BackaBuddy campaign to raise funds.
His partner, Kayla Domnakis, also got involved, sending out a heartfelt letter to Jacaranda FM’s Good Morning Angels, explaining his situation and pleading for some sort of assistance.
Last week, Kubeka’s persistence finally paid-off when he received a surprise that could undoubtedly change his life.
He was invited into Jacaranda FM’s studios where he was surprised by South Africa’s most acclaimed chef, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen.
In an emotional but incredibly positive on-air moment, Jan Hendrik invited Kubeka to Nice, France, for a three month apprenticeship at his Michelin Star restaurant, Jan.
Not only will Kubeka be working side-by-side with the chef, but he’ll also be learning from him and his team of experts.
The internship will also be entirely paid for, including the costs of the return-flights to France, accommodation, and a salary, so that Kubeka can concentrate on developing his food-passion into a career.
This was not the first time that Kubeka and Jan Hendrik had met as the young foodie entered MasterChef South Africa season 4.
His goal was to achieve top five in the competition as a way of convincing his family that he should pursue a career in culinary arts.
He however did one better and finished in fourth place in season 4.
Now he’ll be jetting off to learn from one of the best in the business, and Kubeka says he cannot wait.
“I am ecstatic,” Kubeka told the Saturday Star. “It still feels surreal and I am so humbled by such an amazing opportunity. I can't wait to begin my apprenticeship and be in Jan's kitchen.”
While the aspiring chef is awaiting details and dates of when he will leave for Nice, he says he’s been soaking in the good news and reflecting on his journey so far.
“This isn't my ultimate dream come true, but it's pretty darn close,” says Kubeka.
“I want to be a Michelin star chef, so working under the guidance of (Jan Hendrik) is the first step at achieving my ultimate dream. I couldn't have imagined a better opportunity.”
He says learning under the stewardship of Van der Westhuizen will be incredibly special.
“I am exhilarated to be able to work with him. I have always been a fan and he is one of my biggest influences. Meeting him on Masterchef was the highlight of that journey and he inspired me with the way he conceptualises and executes dishes.”
Kubeka understands however that it won't be easy working in such a high pressure environment in one of Nice’s finest establishments.
“I think dedication and an extremely strong work ethic is required to work in a Michelin star kitchen. I also think you need to have a tough skin, and be able to take criticism. I am ready to take on the challenge and I know I’ll do my best and work my absolute hardest to ensure success during this apprenticeship. I give my all in everything I do and I think my fighting spirit will help me. I am ready to learn.”
Kubeka says the thing he is most excited to learn from chef Jan is how to innovate dishes in new and creative ways.
“Chef Jan's mind is a gold mine and I can't wait to be exposed to the brilliance that comes to life in his kitchen through his creative dishes.”
He says his friends and family are over the moon following the life-changing news.
“My family is extremely proud of me. I think my culinary journey really changed their perceptions of the culinary industry and exposed them to the possibilities of this industry. They now see me as a role model to other children who want to chase their dreams and I have their full support on this journey. They are very excited for me to start my apprenticeship in France and can't wait to see what else is possible for me.
“My biggest supporter is my partner, Kayla. She is extremely excited for me to go to France and for the opportunities that may follow. She is very proud of me and says so every day.”
While delighted at the prospect of working with the acclaimed chef, Kubeka admits that the journey to get to where he is today wasn’t easy.
“No one in my family believed that I could become a chef and so they would not entertain the idea of me attending culinary school when I left high-school. They believed this field didn't make money and so I initially studied a BSc mathematical statistics degree before becoming a software engineer.
“Entering MasterChef meant I had to be away from my family for five weeks with very minimal contact. Affording tuition after the competition meant I was at school during the day and then as soon as I got home I was working late hours through most evenings to complete my software developer work.
“The cost of groceries and not having most equipment in my kitchen at home meant I had to get creative with the content I could make and the dishes I could practise. A lot of other contestants in the show were more experienced in cooking, and my exploration with culinary dishes only really began during the first Covid-19 lockdown. So I felt like the underdog coming into the competition.”
Having now landed the opportunity of a lifetime, Kubeka says he is ready to take on the challenge and fulfil his potential.
“To be a great chef you need to be a life-long learner. I think you need to have dedication and a strong work ethic but also not be afraid to experiment and try new things or techniques. You always need to keep a positive attitude and take in information from those around you. You need to be able to tap into your creativity when conceptualising dishes. You also need to practice as much as you can, and take criticism very well. I am ready for it all.
“I have always had a passion for cooking and loved to be in the kitchen. I grew up in Soweto and food is what brings the community together. When I was younger, my granny took me to a church baking class and I felt very excited to be the only male in the class. It was through that programme that I really gained a love for cooking and an appreciation for food.
“One day, I'd love to own my very own Michelin Star restaurant and this is my ultimate dream. I want to bring the Michelin star to South African soil and have a restaurant locally that holds the star.”