Out of the wings, into the fire of the kitchen

Out of the wings, into the fire of the kitchen
From left to right, students Chad Francis, Thulani Pulani, Lindiwe Madinga and Philisiwe Buqa. (Photo: Supplied)

COOKtastic empowers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds by teaching hospitality industry skills. Four-month courses prepare students for entry-level positions in professional kitchens with theory, practical, and hands-on experience.

Get a job in a restaurant, they said. It will be fun, they said. That may be so but it’s also tough, with long antisocial and exhausting hours spent on your feet, cuts and burns are the proud battle scars of the trade, and egos and tempers can often explode in confined hot spaces. It’s also incredibly rewarding to create and plate culinary delights for happy diners, to be part of a team, and to be exposed to opportunities to grow in your career, in a global industry.

But it’s not for everyone.

That’s why COOKtastic begins each of its four-month courses with two weeks of work readiness training. “We realised soft skills are crucial,” said COOKtastic founder Mbuyi Jongqo. The Salt River-based NPO offers entry level training for the hospitality industry to young people between the ages of 18 and 26, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities. 

“We work with them in terms of personal development, self awareness and leadership potential, as well as punctuality, teamwork, etiquette, and conflict resolution,” said Jongqo. “They come from tough backgrounds and many of them have anger issues. We make sure these are addressed before they get into the kitchen.” 

Good plan… knives, fire and all that.

“We need to ensure they are motivated to work as a team. You know, some are very shy when they come to us, they can’t even say a word. By the time they complete those two weeks, they see their true potential coming out. I see them shine and thrive, and wonder ‘is this the person I interviewed?’,” said Jongqo.

If a student decides it’s not for them after all, then this is the time to drop out.

Student dish – toasted English muffin, blanched asparagus, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce garnished with chopped chives. (Photo: Supplied)

“My experience at COOKtastic is great because it didn’t only help me grow in the kitchen but also self-development, and it is helping me become more confident and to communicate better. Each and every day I am in the kitchen my love for cooking grows,” said student Lindiwe Madinga.

“My experience is amazing, as I was taught on how to improve my communication skills better with my peers and expand the way I think of life,” said Chad Francis. “I have grown so much in the small time I have been there and will always keep the qualities I was taught at COOKtastic.”

Jongqo has been in the development sector for more than 16 years and worked at various NPOs. Her position before this was as programme and job placement manager at the Salesian Institute Youth Projects, Cape Town, where she mentored hundreds of young people to achieve  personal sustainability and personal progress. 

“In 2018 they restructured and downscaled due to funding, but because I knew the circumstances and social ills that exist in various communities, I decided I want to continue with this work, because I know the need is there,” said Jongqo. “I wanted to do something that was more innovative and different, and I thought at that stage the hospitality industry was the one because it was thriving.”

COOKtastic founder Mbuyi Jongqo with a group of students. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Through market research it was identified that many young people are considered unemployable because they lack basic skills, and often don’t even know what jobs are out there, while the hospitality industry doesn’t have the time, money or resources to train them from scratch.

“So it was the right time to start something to bridge that gap. That’s how COOKtastic came about,” said Jongqo.

An idea. All well and good, but where to go from there? 

“I was doing job placement so I had a lot of placement partners – restaurateurs, hotel people – so I knew the opportunities were there. I needed to get people trained.”

Jongqo approached her friend Brigitte Sachs-Schaffer, a business consultant based in Austria, to help her. “We wrote proposals to various investors, and one that came on board was the Rotary Club in Austria. They said they would help but only if it will be sustainable. They meant they didn’t want something that would entirely depend on government funding or foundations but something that can generate its own income,” said Jongqo.

“The aim of COOKtastic is that we do training but we are set up as a social enterprise – a bakery and catering – to generate income, which goes back into the development. They said yes. 

“It was a struggle because we had to get a local Rotary Club to be a torchbearer kind of thing and control the funds, because NPOs in Africa are known to waste or misuse the money. Rotary Sea Point came on board then we got the initial investment of around R100K.”

Together with crowd funding in Austria and Germany, enough money was raised to kit out the Salt River kitchen. It’s set up in such a way that not every student has an individual work station, but more along the lines of a restaurant kitchen where everybody is doing a different part of the job.

This was in March 2020, two weeks before lockdown.

“I said we are not going to stop. We are on a mission and we want to make it work. We’re not going to be stopped by Covid-19,” said Jongqo. “Brigitte had to go home. We had to restrategise, doing things online, keeping the students motivated. While we were still thinking about all this, Rotary Sea Point and City of Cape Town crisis relief together came to the idea of baking bread, because there was a need for food. People were losing their jobs, going hungry.”

Between April and September 2020, the students baked more than 40,000 ciabatta rolls, which were donated to various communities. 

COOKtastic opened two weeks before lockdown so students used that time to bake thousands of ciabatta rolls for the hungry. (Photo: Supplied)

“When we could reopen, they came back full of energy and enthusiasm. Only one dropped out,” said Jongqo.

Twenty students are accommodated in each four-month course, and they are from various communities in the Cape metropole. “We go out and do open days and recruitment drives. We also work with ward councillors to identify a need,” said Jongqo. “We do a presentation and if they are interested, they can apply.”

There is a written assessment requirement, an aptitude test if you will. If they pass this, they’ll make it to the interview stage. “This is necessary because the restaurant industry is not easy. Also, the course itself costs R24K to train one student, which is subsidised, so we have to ensure we get the best candidates,” said Jongqo.

“The process is quite tough. We ask them to pay a commitment fee of R2,400. If you don’t pay for something it’s easy to give up and not feel the value of it. We provide transport, two sets of uniforms, two chef lecturers – they get the best possible.”

Assistant chef lecturer Michael Nkomo. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The course comprises cooking modules, theory and practical exercises, assessments, assignments, and group work, Mondays to Fridays. The hub is open over the weekends if anyone wants to come in to practise using available ingredients, or those they bring themselves.

“They eat the dishes they make and taste each other’s, to give feedback,” smiled Jongqo. “We invite chefs to come through as well. Then they go into the industry for work integrated learning.”

Once this time is up, the restaurant can decide to keep them on at an industry-standard rate (something students are taught too, to know their worth). 

Denise Levy from Ginger & Lime, who has presented hands-on interactive cooking evenings for many years, commented: “Over the past five years I have enjoyed an incredible mutually beneficial and rewarding relationship with Mbuyi,” she said. “This organisation is producing some really talented young chefs and we have had the pleasure of having a few of them work with us in our kitchen (both at The Kitchen Collective and at Ginger & Lime) on our internship programme. This is professionally managed on an ongoing basis as both the students and us, as the mentors, are monitored during the entire process.

“We so enjoyed our interns, that to be honest having invested in their growth, we could not let them go, and created jobs for them to keep them on. I feel that my real purpose in life is actually more this side of the work – the teaching and watching my team grow, than the cooking.” 

Levy said she was honoured to be invited to the last graduation and felt like a real mamma seeing her “kids” passing with flying colours.

Graduation day at COOKtastic. (Photo: Supplied)

“I would highly recommend COOKtastic and the incredible team who work tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of our youth,” she said. 

Brett Nussey of Stir Crazy Cooking met with Jongqo and her students because he wanted to see what she was doing and how she was conducting her training, as he sensed potential synergies between them. “I was impressed with the layout and set-up of her establishment, as it is well presented and a clean training area, although pretty small,” he said.

“My idea was to create a synergy where her students could attend our school and restaurant as apprentices, with a view to staying on as employees or to assist with running cooking classes. COOKtastic currently runs a ‘kitchen hand’ programme, which is an entry level programme for chefs, the perfect entry point for people starting out in the industry. Our training programmes are geared more toward experienced chefs and include training for chefs working on superyachts and marine vessels, as well as occupational chef certifications. This means students from COOKtastic may be able to ‘graduate’ into our school for further training and development.

“Mbuyi has done a wonderful job in securing funding for the business, which was set up to assist those who could not ordinarily afford the cost of training.”  

Student dish – line fish with cauliflower purée, cucumber ribbons, sugar snap peas and fish veloute. (Photo: Supplied)

Nussey was invited to the school to run a plating and presentation class for the students. “The response to the training was enlightening,” he said. “We prepared four different plating options to show them how to approach plating and presentation of meals from different perspectives, including different meal options. The students were engaging, asked questions and were very willing to assist in the training where they could. After the class, each student posed with the plates for selfies and group pictures. 

“Although I have not been directly involved with their training, I was impressed by the way the students conducted themselves, and how they respected their training environment and their lecturers.”

Student Philisiwe Buqa said: “COOKtastic gave me an opportunity to fulfil my dreams. The experience is great.” Thulani Pulani always wanted to be a chef and COOKtastic gave him the chance. “I’ve learned how to follow the recipes correctly as well as how to plate, and to work in a clean and hygienic space,” he said.

Jongqo said her work is extremely fulfilling and so rewarding. “Someone was asking me the other day what keeps me motivated. And it’s seeing the smiles on their faces, after they complete a dish and they’re like ‘really? I did that?’. Many of us take some things for granted, and here you get a young person who was born in Cape Town, and has lived in Cape Town their whole life but who has never been to V&A Waterfront, or even Sea Point. We take them out for site visits and you can see their minds opening, see the change, the transformation. That is magnificent. 

“We have placement partners like Kove Collection so we go to the Bungalow in Clifton, Chinchilla in Camps Bay, and you can see them light up. They say ‘we see this in magazines and on TV, we never thought we’d be here’. 

Student dish – ravioli with white sauce, charred onions, roasted vegetables and blanched carrot ribbons. (Photo: Supplied)

“When they get employment and they’re working in these establishments you can see the disbelief. It’s incredible, and so is the feedback from their families, and the community at large. Because when they change and develop it’s not just for them. It’s for their parents, siblings and peers,” she said. 

“There are a lot of people who want to support domestic workers’ children, for example,” said Jongqo. “We get a lot of Xhosa-speaking applicants. I would like a more diverse group inclusive of Coloured and Indians, so they learn cultural diversity from each other.”

Chefs who wish to volunteer for demonstrations, and restaurateurs who would like to offer placements for students, are also invited to contact Jongqo. The students are still baking ciabattas to supply schools and restaurants. DM/TGIFood

For more information, click here. COOKtastic is currently taking applications for its next course which begins on September 27, 2021.

The need to feed the hungry is still a fact of life this far into the pandemic. Raw food company Earthshine runs a programme to which you can donate for three communities in the Deep South of Cape Town.


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