NICE Work
Until recently male cooks at Namibia’s lodges told their families they were labourers, too ashamed to admit they worked in a kitchen. Now a new chef’s school in Windhoek is changing perceptions, as Sharri Whiting found out.

 

Image Toulus learned to cook at the feet of his granny in the southern Namibian town of Maltahöhe. The little boy watched carefully as she mixed ingredients that reflected both her Nama culture and that of the white household where she worked.    


He loved the way she tossed in some plant, herb or other ingredient that brought new flavour to a traditional dish. One thing was sure – that ingredient wouldn’t be lettuce, for Toulus’s granny never liked salad. She told him that she wasn’t a goat, so she certainly wasn’t going to eat any green leaves.


 When he was eight years old Toulus was abandoned by his parents. He was raised by a lady called Lena who worked in the laundry of Wolwedans Lodge in the NamibRand. During school holidays he helped out with maintenance and building. One day Ralf Herrgott, the head chef, pulled him into the kitchen to clean. Impressed by his attitude he tried him out as a kitchen hand, peeling potatoes. Toulus did well and it gave Ralf and Wolwedans owner Stephan Brückner the initial idea for the Namibian Institute for Culinary Education (NICE).


In 1990, when Namibia became independent, tourists were mainly easy-going locals and South Africans, who often camped or visited the national parks, plus a few Germans and Brits looking for laid-back vacations. The better lodges were homely, comfortable and basic and the food was just the same:  grilled meats, including game; beans, potatoes, mealie meal; simple salads, and German-style breads and cakes. There was a lot of beer and South African wine to wash it down. Nobody was going to starve, but nobody was going home with memories of gourmet delights.


Ten years, even five years ago, local men who worked as cooks at Namibia’s resorts and lodges went back to their villages on their days off and pretended to be working as labourers. They were unwilling to admit they were cooks in tribal cultures where cooking was only for women, and what they cooked was basic braaivleis (grilled meats).


Fast-forward to almost twenty years after independence and Namibian hospitality has moved ever upward, reflecting its status as the ecotourism capital of Africa. Namibia draws discriminating travellers to some of the most remote 5-Star lodges, resorts and game reserves on earth.  


These places are not easy to build, some taking years to complete. Roads must be hewn from rock and sand, and materials transported over dry riverbeds and steep mountains, across sand dune oceans, endless savannahs and one of the oldest deserts in the world. They offer the finest linens, elegant hand crafted furniture, modern bathrooms, and professional service amid spectacular views of landscapes and wildlife far, far from a stressed out world.


Luxury travel demands equally high quality cuisine, which, until recently, has been the big challenge. Not only is it imperative to find sources and delivery of fresh produce, good meats, and other products, it’s essential to have well-trained chefs to prepare them. Although attitudes have changed towards men working as cooks, there haven’t been many local professionals able to create high-quality menus, and it was difficult to entice European-trained chefs to work in remote regions for longer than a few years.


The solution came from Wolwedans. Stefan Brückner and Ralf Herrgott were getting fed-up with having their chefs poached by other lodges. Inspired by the success of Toulus, they set up Namibia’s first finishing school for chefs, the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education, in Windhoek. NICE is now where experienced local cooks are turned into luxury chefs. They train both in a classroom and on the job – working in the 120-seat NICE restaurant, proceeds from which will eventually fund the school. NICE was opened in 2006 in the restored German colonial mansion that was the Brückner family home for three generations. The programme hopes to turn out ten to twelve highly skilled chefs per year. Toulus was among the first of them. Before the initial year was over, job offers were already coming in for the first batch of students. The demand for NICE chefs is now so great that graduates can expect to make three times their previous salaries.


Toulus has returned to Wolwedans. Here, he prepares his favourite dish, tender beef fillet on polenta, caramelised carrots and courgettes, topped with creamy brandy and pepper sauce.  For dessert there’s date pudding topped with sticky toffee sauce mixed with custard. His granny would be proud.

 

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