I could see Addy Ndlovu was a happy man in the kitchen at Shishangaan, an old military base in the Kruger National Park (KNP). Smiling continually while slicing beans in preparation for lunch, he briefly related the last two weeks of his life, from the time he started with the Singita Cooking School.
While friends and family in Welverdiend, a village adjacent to the Park at the Orpen entrance gate, are always telling him he should be a chef and cook to earn his living, it is also a passion he had hoped one day he would have the opportunity to fulfill.
So when his brother told him about an outreach program offered by the Singita Kruger National Park (KNP) Lodges he jumped at the chance.
To rub shoulders with and be trained by some of the country's top hospitality staff, while being exposed to five star surrounds, was truly 'like a dream come true,' says Addy. The idea for the school germinated from an existing need.
'We were constantly employing and overseeing underskilled staff, who would apply for employment at both lodges - Singita Lebombo and Sweni - as either commis or even demis-chefs, but they had nowhere near the required skills levels,' says Kurt Abrahams, who was a sous chef at Lebombo and is now overseeing the training programme.
That was how the seed was planted, but it had to wait for fruition until Pam Richardson, group human resources director of the Singita group, bought into the idea.
The programme was approved, not only as a staff development programme, but also because it provided KNP Singita the opportunity to fulfil part of its social upliftment responsibilities in terms of its concession agreements with Kruger.
In January 2007 the first group of six trainees started their training at Shishangaan, which is an old military base, and has been converted to house about 100 KNP Singita staff. For nine months, these trainees cook for the staff under Kurt's watchful eye. They prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This is in addition to their theoretical 'technical' training as well as other life skills training. Kurt is a stickler for a holistic approach to everything - cooking, training, life. 'And I brought that to the training.
While food is central to cooking and all skills related to food, such as preparation, cuts, handling of stock, making of sauces and own stock are important, it is equally important to earn a living in this life and to have the skills to do that, which would include paying equal attention to things like computer skills, English, interviewing skills, entrepreneurial ability and so on,' he adds.
Kurt himself sharpened his knives at the only Relais Gourmand establishment at the time in South Africa, the Grand Rochè, before he refined his talents at the Relais Gourmand, The White Barn Inn restaurant in the United States and later, Lake Placid, also in the USA.
The second intake of trainees, aged between 17 and 24, started in October this year, and are mostly from villages near Orpen Gate - Welverdiend, Hluvukani, Edinburgh, and so on. Every week two students stay on in the camp to assist with dinner, while the others commute daily on the same system as the day staff. 'Though the first group had been Theta assessed on NQF levels two and three, the next groups will not follow this route as it is very expensive,' says Kurt.
'It costs us R350 000 per year, so over the two years we spend R700 000, training 24 students, which amounts to a cost of R30 000 a student. Singita currently funds all of this, but will need to raise half this amount in the future,' says Jason Trollip, general manager of Singita KNP.
One successful trainee of the first intake has been employed at Singita Lebombo to do an internship for the next two years where she will spend time in all the sections at the lodge gaining valuable hands-on training.
Apart from the Singita cooking school, the organisation has also embarked on a number of outreach projects within the nearest accessible communities to the lodge. These are situated about two hours drive from the Orpen entrance gate.
The projects range from community tours for guests, to the facilitation and/or provision of boreholes to a community (project is in progress) and infrastructure like roofs, floors, ceilings and even equipment for crèches and a primary school.
Singita registered the Singita Community Trust in January 2006 to facilitate the organisation's funding structure with regard to its social responsibility and outreach programmes within the local communities.