Tasting empowerment

‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

A group of Stellenbosch restaurateurs is taking this phrase to heart by transforming the words into a new initia­tive that will upgrade skills in the hospitality industry to bring about greater change in the community. This initiative, Tasting Stellenbosch, sees some of the town’s most famous names in hospitality take up their metaphorical fishing rods to educate the next generation of chefs and hospitality interns with invaluable skills training.

Stellenbosch Wine Routes’ Michael Ratcliffe, chef Bertus Basson and chef George Jardine are facilitating hospitality training to the community.

In its most distilled form, Tasting Stellenbosch is a social development programme which channels activist Martin Luther King Jr in its approach: when you realise that what affects one directly, affects all indirectly, you can leverage interconnectedness to achieve change. Tasting Stellenbosch is interpreting this by opening its kitchens to young and willing disadvantaged people who want to find a career in the hospitality industry. 

The hospitality sector is a vital contributor to South Africa’s economic growth, but historically skills transfer and knowledge sharing in this sphere happens in a closed loop. Tasting Stellenbosch is now breaking that loop by opening vital skills transfer to a younger generation of disadvantaged learners.

Michael Ratcliffe, the chairperson of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, says social development is the fuel driving the organisation, an energy that he believes penetrates to the very roots. “Meeting this objective requires focused effort from all Stellenbosch’s key industries. We know food and wine are leading contributors to the region’s tourism and economy, but the benefits should not be distributed only horizontally. Our aim is for grassroot communities to benefit and grow.” 

It’s a noble thought, but how does it look in action?

“We consulted with the culinary community in Stellenbosch and they agreed that this objective should be honoured,” explains Michael. “A group of Stellenbosch restaurateurs adopted a socially
responsible code of conduct which stipulates a commitment to build, promote and safeguard the premium positioning of Stellenbosch for future generations.” 

Tasting Stellenbosch’s board of executives includes chefs, owners, sommeliers and winemakers at some of the town’s most renowned restaurants. Chef George Jardine from Jardine Restaurant and Jordan Restaurant is the chairman, while chef Bertus Basson from Overture, Eike, Spek & Bone and De Vrije Burger is the deputy chairman. Other members of the board are winemaker George Dalla Cia of Dalla Cia Wine & Spirit Company; chef Gregory Czarnecki from The Restaurant at Waterkloof; chef Michael Broughton from Terroir Restaurant; Karine van der Merwe, the owner of Majeka House and Makaron Restaurant; and chef Christophe Dehosse from The Vine Bistro at Glenelly and Joostenberg Bistro.

Indeed, the collective knowledge of these hospitality luminaries is astounding and it’s little wonder Stellenbosch features regularly as a top culinary destination in the annual Eat Out awards.

As leader of the initiative, George Jardine is sensitive to the responsibility that accompanies such a wealth of experience. For him, the knowledge which the various chefs have accrued is a commodity that needs to be ploughed back into society. “The Stellenbosch community is our community, they’re our neighbours,” he says. “We all work together in some way to represent Stellenbosch and make it a world-class destination. As professionals who have trained and developed our skills throughout the world, we have the insight and knowledge to assist and offer local institutions our skills and insight at a grassroots level.” 

Bertus Basson agrees that the strength of the Stellenbosch community is key to Tasting Stellenbosch’s success. “Cooking is deeply rooted in community. It’s where we draw inspiration, where we find employees and also where a lot of our guests and suppliers come from. It is great to have suppliers and guests arriving with produce they have too much of or think we will find interesting. Or have the farmer down the road call us because he has ‘chicken of the woods’ mushrooms we can use.”

For Bertus, Tasting Stellenbosch is an opportunity to “create a platform to give underprivileged youngsters a foot in the door at some of the great kitchens we have in the area by creating this men­toring programme for them”.

George, who himself has benefited from being mentored, notably by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, understands the value and ‘excellence’ this new organisation can unlock. 

For the new generation of hospitality trainees entering the market, this is a massive opportunity to be mentored by an exceptional group of culinary leaders.

Tasting Stellenbosch will encourage practical training through building skills, with chefs offering a broad understanding of the hospitality industry and education. In principle, this will require chefs to put in additional hours to provide leadership training to the students they are mentoring. As time is money, we have to ask: doesn’t the hospitality industry have enough pressure on it in view of the recent water crisis and current electricity disruptions?

Michael says, if anything, this will contribute to restaurants’ success. “Sustainable tourism is essential for being economically viable. This initiative will focus on the upliftment of the community through job creation, which is an investment in the whole of Stellenbosch.”

Bertus agrees. “The short-term outcome will be the empowerment and employment of young people. Long-term success will be measured by the development of sustainable businesses around South African food.”

And in that is the crux. Going back to Martin Luther King Jr, he said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” In other words, the positive change that Tasting Stellenbosch brings to this town won’t be unilateral. 

Tasting Stellenbosch is open to all culinary establishments in Stellenbosch. Individuals who would like to get involved can do so by contacting the Stellenbosch Wine Routes office on 021 886 4310 or tastingstellenbosch@wineroute.co.za.