Five-star chef pays it forward

Leadership sits down at the chef’s table with Executive Chef, Terrence Ford, to talk about his unique initiative to uplift youth from impoverished communities and why the hospitality industry needs to pay it forward


The old Chinese proverb has it that if you feed a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

Much the same principle, it seems, applies to cooking. You can give a man a wonderfully prepared meal, but if you teach him to make such a meal himself, you are providing him with a skill that will change his life.

This is why one of Cape Town’s top chefs, Terrence Ford, who plies his trade at the African Pride Crystal Towers Hotel & Spa recently began a successful collaboration with Cape Town non-profit chefs’ school Infinity Culinary Training (ICT) to teach young people from disadvantaged communities the gentle art of cooking. To date, a total of seven students have been employed on a full time basis at the hotel.

ICT offers students from impoverished backgrounds the necessary skills and training for a career in the hospitality industry, and part of the 12-week course involves on-the-job training in a working commercial kitchen. Ford spearheaded this unique partnership, and says it all happened “very randomly”.

“I met one of the gentlemen who was partially behind their training development programme at the time. We chatted and he told me about ICT and its students, how they try and give these kids the best practical and theoretical cheffing sort of knowledge that they can afford, providing them with diplomas at the end of the very short course. He was telling me about the struggle to find hotels and restaurants willing to take these students on to do their practical training and I said ‘okay, I don’t mind, you can send me a few students for my kitchen and we can work from there,’” he says.

The reluctant chef

Executive Chef Ford has been with this five-star hotel since its inception in 2010, managing and leading a team of 58 chefs. He explains that while he has achieved great success as a chef, becoming one wasn’t always his main interest. “I was never really interested in becoming a chef; I actually wanted to do hotel management. That is, up until I spent time in a hotel,” he says.

“I realised that I’m a very emotional person, and by that I mean if I’m in a bad mood, I’m in a bad mood. And when you do hotel management a guest doesn’t care about your bad mood, they still want to see the smile on your face and you need to welcome them and that is just not who I am. In the kitchen you can literally be yourself on a daily basis. So basically my personality type and the kitchen sort of worked out for me.”

That is not to say he had no interest in cooking; on the contrary. Ford explains that as far back as he can remember he loved food and everything that went with it. He didn’t have Home Economics as a subject at school so his journey to some of the top kitchens in South Africa began with him cooking at home.

“I used to get home in the afternoon from school and my mother would give me a call, and it started out with taking things out the freezer to defrost. And then it developed into ‘this is how you cook it, this is how it must be done’, and it went from roast potatoes to rice and then rice and roast potatoes and eventually it sort of gets to a point where you’re making a full meal,” he says.

Infinity Culinary Training

After leaving school, he was accepted into the Protea Hotels in-service training programme, where he began cooking professionally in the kitchen. It was being involved in this amazing opportunity and experience that motivated him years later to work with Infinity Culinary Training.

A non-profit chef’s school in Cape Town, Infinity offers a 12-week course teaching basic cooking skills, life skills and offering the professional tools necessary for graduates to obtain immediate employment in the hospitality industry.

In just over five years since the organisations’ inception, ICT has produced 197 graduates, over 70% of whom have found employment within the industry. The organisation’s goal is to maintain a consistent, year-to-year employment rate of at least 80%. ICT helps bridge the gap between poverty and jobs by providing graduates with not only the skills, but also the confidence and determination to embark on a productive and sustainable future in this exciting industry.

“Having come from a background where I was unable to pay for tertiary education, I know better than most the transformative power of training programmes such as those offered by ICT,” says Ford. “What captivated me to begin this partnership was the fact that they work with people that come from very bad under-privileged backgrounds.

“I’ve got staff in my kitchen who have no parents. I’ve got staff in my kitchen who have slept outside, who have no homes; who have parents that don’t work, who are supporting people. They come from big families, with one person as the breadwinner. That’s also the background that a lot of the Infinity guys come from, and I saw it as an opportunity to not just give back, but to get involved in an area where a lot of people don’t get involved.”


Moral responsibility

Ford says the life circumstances and trials which many of these students have to overcome on a daily basis provide a sobering insight into the lived reality of many in our developing nation. His frustration and determination comes from realising just how many young people there are in South Africa who do not have access to the kind of education or opportunities that guarantee employment. He believes that those in a position to offer in-service training, no matter what their industry, have a moral imperative to do so. “The dignity of work should not be denied to anyone,” he says. “To train and mentor a young student full of unformed potential and enthusiasm is rewarding in ways that simple words cannot articulate”.

He says that while he realises a course of this nature is giving these young people an opportunity, it is not a hand out. There are high standards that need to be met and everyone in his kitchen is trained to those standards. Each student initially has an interview with him, he explains. “What I say to them is ‘you are not in my kitchen based on skill, because you’ve got no skill. You are here based on your attitude’, because you can train someone who has got a good attitude, and you can really teach them and take them to the next level. You can develop them as a person in terms of their skill.

“You can teach skill. You cannot teach attitude. If someone has a bad attitude and has got no skill how will you be able to teach them? So I don’t judge them on what they can do, I judge them on how they react to me, how they walk, their body language. There’re a lot of things that you look at when you employ someone with no skills, compared to employing someone with a skill for a specific reason,” he says.

After passing the interview, students spend about a month working in the kitchen with Executive Chef Ford as a mentor. He explains that each week they move into a different section. At the end of the month Ford and his seniors will sit down and discuss all that the student has done. “We score them on a sort of staff referral form, and then obviously if it’s a very good score it means we have to create something for this person, but if it’s not a good score it becomes very difficult to give someone an opportunity when they haven’t really shown me that they really want to do it,” explains Ford.

“So what I’ve done is I’ve used the students that I’ve had in my kitchen, I’ve had fourteen of them, and out of the fourteen I chose seven of the best ones over a period of time. Those are the ones I then employ because for me to then see the good ones go and not have jobs is just a waste of talents so I sort of use the resources that I’ve got to employ them and create something with them, as well as create something for them.”


A chance to succeed

One of the students Ford took on as a permanent employer after his month of service is Lubabalo Saki, who has been at the hotel since January and has been featured in some of the videos relating to the work Ford is doing. Saki became involved with ICT in 2012.

“There’s a sister opposite my house that knew about ICT. She had previously looked after one of my lecturers who had also been in a bad space. She had taken her in and helped her get onto the right path and into the Infinity Culinary Training programme,” he explains. “She felt it would also be a good plan for me, a good direction for me to follow in life. She told me everything about ICT, and got me the application form and that was how I got into ICT, through the motivation of that sister opposite me”.

Saki explains that having a mentor figure like that really helped him deal with issues and events that had happened to him in the past. He says that since his childhood his would be mentor had been watching him closely, without saying anything. It was only when the ICT opportunity raised its head that she got closer and they got to know each other better. “She has helped me a lot, by showing me this opportunity in hospitality, which was my only option,” he says.

His interview at Crystal Towers is definitely one that Ford remembers very well. Saki recalls that on the night before his interview, a Sunday evening, he was on his way home from his girlfriend at about a quarter to 9 at night, when he was robbed by four youths. As he tried to fight back he got hit in the face with a glass. “The Monday I had an interview here at Crystal Towers; my mother didn’t want me to come. She said how can you go to a place like that looking the way you do, and I told her no, I will actually like this place. From what I have heard and from what I have researched about Crystal Towers, it is a place where I could actually see myself.”

“So I came on the Monday morning like a lost soul. I went to the receptionist, who said she would show me where to go and also took me to get cleaned up a bit. Terrence took me to his office and I actually first walked into it with my sunglasses on, trying to hide myself, but then I just took them off and I saw his facial expression, but he just bcarried on with the interview,” explains Saki. “It was something that took me by surprise as I wasn’t sure if the interview was going to happen or not, but I was willing to take the chance. And I really respect and appreciate him for carrying on with the interview and giving me a chance. And then on Thursday I got the call that I must come in on Friday morning, and that’s when I started, the 23rd of January.”

“If someone walks into your office with a battered face,” says Ford, “I think anyone would have question marks. You wonder what happened to this guy. Is this someone who you actually want to employ? But I carried on with the interview because I believe in giving people a chance. Everybody needs an opportunity. It’s up to them what they do with it, but everyone needs a chance in life. So that’s sort of how it was,” he explains. “Lubabalo left here after the interview and I called him back to do a cook all, and his cook all went okay and then I said to him ‘okay there’s a spot open for you in the kitchen’.”

He says Ford is a good teacher, and someone he looks up to. “There are no favourites, he is just very straightforward, a nice guy with a good heart, a very good heart.”

Saki is very happy at Crystal Towers and hopes that one day in the not too distant future he will be able to become an Executive Chef. “I still have a lot to learn here, I can see that. But I’ll get there”.


Inspiring confidence

Lubabalo Saki is just one of the students whose life Ford has impacted in the same way that other chefs helped him during his time as a student in training. “I’ve worked with some really amazing chefs in my time. I’m still very young and I’m an executive chef for a five star property. It’s not a lot of guys my age that are at this level that I am at, and it all boils down to when I sit back and I look at my career,” says Ford.

“I was lucky enough to work with leaders in my field and they equipped me with the skill to be able to one day go out there and figure it out for myself, and that is my biggest mission with these students; that I give them the knowledge, the skill, the motivation that one day when they leave here they can go out there and they can swim in the deepest seas, and I wouldn’t have to worry about them.

“It’s like a parent sort of letting a child go on their own,” he says. “You’re confident enough to know that that person is going to make the right choices, they’re going to do the right thing, they’re going to grow, and I think that’s my base when I look at Infinity and how they do it, that’s where I base my sort of direction with my students.

“As I’ve said before, I would rather work with someone who comes from an underprivileged background, whose parents can’t afford to send them to the top schools, because my parents couldn’t send me to the top schools, and get them onto this course.

“I would rather work with someone who comes from nothing, but has got a brilliant attitude. It just makes more sense to me, because you can make more of an impact on someone like that than what you can with someone who has got everything already.”

Rainbow in a cloud

Asked what he thinks makes a good leader, he says being a good leader is like being a rainbow in a cloud.

“I don’t tell a lot of people that, but you know everyone has got little issues, everyone has got their problems that they’re going through. I’ve got 58 chefs, 58 different personalities and stories. I spend most of my time in this kitchen with these people. I hardly spend time with my own friends and my own family, so they became your family and you would do anything to look after your team,” he says.

“What I mean by being a rainbow in someone’s cloud is that you need to be that person to them that they can look up to, not just as a chef, because I’m not just a chef any more. I’m a social worker, I deal with kids’ problems, I’m a financial counselor, I’m a cook. I need to create, I need to manage people. It’s such a broad spectrum of things that you deal with on a daily basis, but what also makes it work is a very good support structure and knowing your team. So you might not be able to teach someone how to peel an onion properly, but if you can be that rainbow in their cloud. that is what matters the most to them.”

He says without his team, he is nothing. “I can’t run this kitchen by myself, as many skills as I have. Without my head chefs, my sous chefs, my pastry chef and so on, I would not be successful. So I acknowledge them to the best I can for the role that they play in the kitchen on a daily basis, and I think for me any leader, any good leader, if you have a good support structure at the end of the day it’s about acknowledging the team, and by acknowledging the team. knowing the team, knowing their strengths, knowing their weaknesses, being able to use people to get the most out of them by knowing what they’re good at, those are all attributes that works for me in my kitchen.

“I am very harsh, but I’ve got a big heart and like I say ‘you know, as hard as I am, without them I wouldn’t be where I am today’, so it doesn’t always come across in the most loving way every single day, but the knowledge, the care and nurturing, those are all things that I think my team would sort of say is part of who I am to them.” ▲

Shannon Manuel

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