Some years ago we saw a niche in the catering industry in South Africa. For many years we had admired the improving standards of South Africa’s game lodges and hotels, but kept on hearing the same story from their owners, that it was difficult to obtain and hold on to well-motivated and expert staff. With this in mind in 1997 we founded a chef’s academy near to Pretoria. The Prue Leith College of Food and Wine is situated in a quiet suburb of Centurion between Pretoria and Johannesburg. The chef’s academy was opened with the aim of producing professionals for this niche. What tourists to South Africa wanted, we saw, was simple stylish food of exceptional quality and having a distinctly South African flavour.
The college has an on-site restaurant that specializes in simple, freshly made dishes made from the best of South African produce. Students are accepted into the college after passing their Matric examination at least at standard grade. They must also be at least seventeen years of age. The college course is substantial and lasts for eighteen months, this being split into three terms of six months each. Courses start in January and July and there are three courses that run concurrently. Students accepted into the college must report for both academic and practical work experience, the latter being carried out in the college kitchens and in the evenings in the restaurant, the Odd Plate, so named after the many odd plates that adorn its walls after being donated by Prue’s friends and by patrons of the restaurant. Students take orders at table, prepare and serve the meals, as well as acting as Maître d’Hotel and wine steward. Work done in the restaurant by students is always under professional supervision and is of such a standard that Business Day has ranked the restaurant in the top twenty restaurants in the country and the top ten restaurants in Gauteng. The Odd Plate restaurant has been awarded its Blaizon from the Chaine Des Rotisseurs.
During their time at the chef’s academy, students are placed at selected game lodges, restaurants and hotels across South Africa and in Europe for six months during their third semester. This enables them to get first hand exposure to the harsh realities of the actual workplace. Their training also includes time outdoors at the college boma, where they get used to the art of Bush Cooking as well as experience in other types of African cuisine. Prue Leith and other industry leaders take time to visit the college and give regular demonstrations and lectures on a wide variety of aspects of a culinary nature. These include Hygiene, Nutrition, Job Interviews and Indian, Thai and Japanese cuisine. Included as part of the course is the Cape Wine Academy Certificate Course, in which students must participate in order to graduate. The chef’s academy also offers a tour of the Western Cape wine lands if there are enough students to participate.