In August last year, we told you about Lentijie Isak’s amazing opportunity to travel to the UK to study and experience working as a chef in some top culinary venues.
What did she have to say about it? Well, in a nutshell, it was just ‘magical’ with her trip beginning with a visit to London accompanied by Samantha Skyring, CEO of Oryx Salt whose contributions to the TFPD Foundation paid for Lientjie’s flight and travel expenses.
How did it feel, being a first time flyer?
“Well, at Cape Town International all was fine till we reached customs. Sam went through before I did which made me very nervous and my heart raced. What was going to happen? They peppered me with questions, but clearly I wasn’t a threat because Sam and I were joyfully re-united at the boarding gate. Taking off for the first time was an odd experience. I’d been warned that I’d feel my stomach drop as the plane took off, but we were already in the air, when Sam pointed out how small everything was on the ground – I hadn’t even realised we’d taken off!”
Arrival in London
“Once we arrived in London, I called my mom and that was really hard for me – the emotion of actually being in London got to me for the first time and I cried big tears. Mom scolded me: “My child – you should have cried before you left – not now that the trip has started!”
Our first event was the Speciality Fine Food Show at the Olympic Hall in London where Sam was exhibiting Oryx Desert Salt. We worked at the show for three days, meeting wonderful people from all over the world, and in the evenings we hit London. Each evening I had a new culinary experience: Indian, Chinese, a traditional British pub meal and a small, intimate restaurant.
One of the most exciting moments for me was going on the London Eye and I rode in red busses, black taxis and travelled on the Tube. It took a while to learn to read the maps, but eventually I learned to follow the different colour lines. We also did a Thames trip of the bridges where I saw the famous landmarks of the House of Commons and other beautiful old buildings.”
Meeting Richard at his home and going to College
“I was a guest in the UK of Richard and Susie Curtis. We’d first met when they were guests at !Xaus Lodge where I am a chef. ( Read the full story here.) Richard, an ex-lecturer at Northampton Collage arranged an incredible month-long itinerary for me with a combination of training, on-the-job experiences and exposure to different venues. I was welcomed into their home as if I were one of their children – in fact their grown children made a point of coming home for a week-end to meet me.
My first experience was at Northampton Rugby Club’s gastro-pub. I worked there for a week and had great exposure to cooking healthy food for athletes. The quantity and variety of vegetables eaten blew me away, especially since I was involved in preparing them!
Week two was a very different experience. It started with Richard escorting me to the Northampton College in his vintage MX5 sports car. ‘’If you are going to College”, he said “you have to be classy and go in style’’. He certainly set the tone – with my fellow students treating me with equal style, opening doors for me, helping me find my way around the campus and making sure I was coping. I joined the Level 2 and Level 3 Professional Chef’s classes and the most interesting thing I learned was how to fillet a fresh fish. We were also exposed to vacuum packing fresh produce for pre-prep and extending the fresh food life. I am really keen to introduce this at !Xaus Lodge (where Lientjie is head chef) so that we can improve the fresh food we give guests.
My contribution to British Chef training was to teach my fellow students how to make slap chips! I also passed on training from Richard Ilett who’d taught me how to marinade steak in a garlic / balsamic marinade before grilling. All agreed it was a real improvement on the salt and pepper that was the only seasoning used by them.”
A Racy Five Star Canteen
“Week three was at Mercedes Benz Racing Engine Factory where I worked in the canteen. Definitely not the kind of canteen you may be thinking of – this was a real five-star place to eat! Here I worked in the pastry division and I’ve now got great ideas for upgrading a plain chocolate mousse into something quite spectacular!
Once again I was fascinated to see the trend in England where vegetables, blanched and stir-fried, are served in large quantities at all meals . And I watched the plates coming back after the meal – those veggies are all being eaten! On my last day there, Richard and I went to an Open Day at the house where the late Lady Diana was brought up. It’s still a family home, with all the family pictures on the walls and our tea was served in crockery that was used when she lived there as a young girl. I’m still wondering if I drank out of a tea cup that Lady Diana herself used!
Fawsley Hall Hotel
The last week was spent at Fawsley Hall Hotel under Chef Richard Walker, Northampton’s Chef of the Year. Here afternoon tea costs more than R400, and is beautifully and professionally prepared. My warm Kalahari heart found it difficult to send out only 3 items with each serving! I learned so much about plating and how to present food. A favourite spa lunch of cucumber, blanched beans and garnish looked like a million dollars before it left the kitchen. What I particularly loved was working in such a professional environment. When an order arrives in the kitchen it’s read out by the Head Chef. Each person in the kitchen had their special role (one day, for example, I was “Duck’’) and once the order was read each person got on with their assigned activity. During service the atmosphere was always calm and efficient.
And the journey continues!
When Lientjie arrived back she went straight to Cape Town to participate in the Sense of Taste Chef School’s annual Bursary competition. One of ten finalists she was given 90 minutes to prepare a meal from a Mystery Basket.
“My basket’s offerings were a chicken breast, bacon, brie cheese, pear and fresh piece of ginger. We had to use two of the items so, along with a large pantry table; I made cous cous with white wine and a chicken fillet fried in butter & lemon juice.
The brie was melted on the cooked chicken. After cooking the chicken I made a reduction with the butter, onion & garlic, chicken stock, coriander and thickened with cream, lemon & pepper. There were five different judges who gave me an overall score of 86% and I ranked fourth in the competition!
Looking back, I can’t believe what I’ve experienced in such a short time. I’m only thirty years old and never thought I’d EVER have some of the experiences I’ve now had – let alone during a period of just 6 weeks!
Richard, thank you so much for what you have given me. Just as you told me never to stop cooking because I have a passion for it – I must say to you “Please, never stop helping people like me. You have changed my life.”