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A moment with Chef Amina Lebelo

The road to culinary opportunities, key industry learnings and plating unique dishes

My passion for food begun in 1983 when I was much younger and used to prepare meals for my close-knit family. I was taken by the taste, flavour, textures, and seasoning of food, which lead to my desire of creating flavourful dishes that everyone enjoyed. When I left school in 1986, I had just completed my standard 9 and decided to rather seek for an internship or job so as to sustain myself and my younger sibling. Our parents died at a young age and left us in the care of my older sister.

I started as an in house trainee 1986 at Riviera Sun International, going on to work in other Sun International properties for a year as a casual worker for months at Lesotho Sun, three months at Royal Swazi Sun, a further three months at Thabanchu Sun and the final quarter of the year spent at Wild Coast Sun. Thereafter, my journey would take me to joining a private hotel group in Bloemfontein as a Sous Chef. Several years down the line and after a few more moves across multiple hotel chains and private brands, I would then join the Tsogo Sun Group, one of South Africa’s leading hospitality chains. It is during my time at Tsogo Sun that I have enjoyed the most growth, working my way up the ladder to becoming a leader in the field.

Conquering challenges in male dominated industry

Being a female was a challenge as man dominated in the kitchen. The fact that I had no academic qualifications and a matric certificate prompted me to study further. It didn’t take long before I noticed many young students I trained in our line of work climbed the ladder faster than I did because they had the backing of a good culinary degree. Adding to this challenge was the fact that I was working in a field where kitchens at every hospitality establishment I worked at were mostly run by male teams. My response to the dilemmas I found myself in was to become proactive in seeking opportunities for further education and also working closely with people who had exceptional knowledge of food preparation techniques and trends in food service.

I worked very hard and made sure I read and experimented with new recipes as much as I could. I always asked questions and made myself available to other chefs when they needed help. By doing this, my flexibility and adaptive capacity in working with other colleagues was soon noticed. Looking back, I can comfortably state that growth opportunity throughout my career came as a result of getting as much information as possible and practicing on how to cook with flair while also leading staff.

My biggest career highlight was being the first Black female head chef in a 5-star hotel; the Sandton Towers Intercontinental Hotel. I had many struggles within the kitchen, and being a female and person of colour, it wasn’t easy to lead a brigade of predominantly male colleagues with strong egos. However there is so much joy when people genuinely enjoy your food, not to mention the tips that are shared by international guests as a token of their appreciation. Still to this day, it gives meaning to my job and a great sense of purpose in how I spend my days, beyond meeting monthly targets. Every challenge, I have learned to overcome and find great reward in helping young aspiring executive chefs learn how to do the same.

Qualities of a top chef – My take

Being a professional chef means being very structured and managing the entire kitchen. Running a successful kitchen requires setting goals, ensuring on-time food preparation, task execution, plating, catering to guests’ unique requirements and so on, on a daily basis. Following these basic steps has always allowed me to get the job done well as I view my role as an executive chef as an integral part to running successful hotel kitchens, managing the overall operations of the business such as achieving business targets, controlling budgets, increasing the business’ monthly income, developing my staff, and ensuring high customer satisfactory levels. In all honesty, my passion for food, being a professional chef and love for people and food is what keeps me going. Without these I would have not been able to thrive in this industry.

Opportunities and challenges in the industry

The opportunities of the culinary industry are endless, with so many available roles including becoming a Head Chef, Pastry chef, Chef de Cuisine, executive chef, Sous Chef, Personal Chef, and even an Area Chef. Many individuals who start off working in commercial kitchens aspire to own a catering business or their own restaurant someday. I think we can all agree that it really all depends on your passion and personal goals.

My goal was always to become an Executive Chef, inspired by my love for cooking and the difficulties we faced upon losing our parents and having to learn how to fend for ourselves. And so finally be promoted to that position after many years of working my way up the culinary ladder was my ultimate career highlight. Not only did I have countless opportunities to gain new skills along the way, but this is where I also attained exposure in a combination of business hotels, resorts, country clubs, private homes, on cruise lines, convention centres, casinos and many other exciting destinations.

For me every day is an opportunity for new experiences through plating unique dishes, creating special menus, making creative new flavour combinations, teaching students that are studying or training, and getting positive reviews from guests and customers. The respect gained overtime from my colleagues, not to mention performance bonuses has been truly rewarding. The best part for me is the close-knit family that has become a part of my kitchen. We as chefs spend hours working together and socializing, which lead to a close working relationships, strength in team dynamics and ultimately a positive working environment.

The challenges every aspiring chef must conquer

Although our industry has many opportunities, it also has its challenges like any other. I always caution my students on the fears they must conquer in working in a fast-paced environment, clearly reminding them that if one doesn’t have a passion for food, they simply will not survive this industry. The hours are long, and it sometimes means comprising spending time with your family, which was really quite tough for me as an Executive Chef. I often missed important family days due to having to work on public holidays, as well as weekends or double shifts, which also meant I missed out on some of my children’s milestones.

A strong support system is integral to the success of any professional. Because I have been so fortunate to be blessed with a supportive husband as well as understanding children, we were able to overcome the challenges presented as they came along. High stress levels, working long shifts with limited rest periods in between, and dips in physical energy are all occupational hazards, and so it is important that one enjoys great relationships with people that understand the complexities of working in our field.

Motivated by passion for food and the industry

Without a doubt, working with fresh ingredients, developing new menu items, working under pressure, leading and teaching chefs in the kitchen environment about food and its textures, characteristics, flavours, colours and presentation all come together keep me motivated to pursue continued growth. My personality shines when my hands are full and my adrenaline is running. Great ideas come to mind when I am juggling multiple tasks in the kitchen and playing around with various elements of food preparation.

Being a chef is my true passion and meaning to life. It means a lot because it is not only my chosen career path but also a part of my identity. Cooking has brought with it some of my fondest memories and it is what I would choose to do over and over again because of the satisfaction and serenity it brings me.

Becoming a chef presented endless possibilities for me. All the hard work, passion and dedication does eventually pay off for those that are committed to growing. Additionally, I must also mention that the desire to continue to learn while in the culinary industry has offered the life-changing opportunity to turn mistakes negative experiences into positive outcomes.

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