Chef Denbeigh van der Merwe is preparing a sauce for her signature salted caramel cheesecake when I arrive at Grill Jichana, located at Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani hotel on the Durban promenade.
Dressed in her black chef’s outfit, she ushers me to a table overlooking a street where she takes a seat next to me. Since becoming a chef, Van der Merwe has prepared meals for hotel guests from all across the globe. The 37-year-old started her career at Alpine Heath Resort in the Drakensberg in the early 2000s where she created delightful buffet spreads and later honed her fine dining skills at the Ballito Manor, north of Durban (the hotel has since closed).
She currently is the executive sous chef at the Grill Jichana and Vigour and Verve at Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani hotel. She fell in love with food as a young girl of six, baking with her mother at their Pietermaritzburg home. Her passion for cooking grew when she took home economic classes during her high school years.
“Pursuing a career as a chef did not appeal to me at first. It was more a passion for me and gave me a chance to spend time with my mother in the kitchen. I only realised that I could pursue this as a career when my aunt noticed an advert in the paper about an opportunity at the International Hotel School in 1999. I applied and never looked back,” she says excitedly.
It is easy to see that Van der Merwe loves her staff and guests. Although the restaurant is not busy this afternoon, she and her team are busy prepping for the night’s service. “It is all about guests and making sure they leave happy and satisfied. I have an amazing team and want to be there for them.”
Days for Van der Merwe are quite flexible. Her typical day includes frequent checks with her team, tending to orders and supply needs and to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
When she isn't cooking up a storm, she enjoys lazing on the couch with a chilled glass of wine and her favourite Netflix show. Or, believe it or not, heads to dinner with her husband at a relaxing restaurant.