Together with Chef Linah Maruping, Coovashan Pillay has been appointed as Vice President of SA Chefs, with Chef James Khoza at the helm of the Association as President. And after a tumultuous few years for the industry, which has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions, the chef is eager to get out there and ask the members what they want from the illustrious association.

Chef Coo has been involved with SA Chefs in both a regional and national capacity, and was first elected to the board in 2019 where he was promptly put in charge of the youth portfolio. “I’m not sure why, I think James thought I was young!” laughs the chef. However, he got stuck in and with a passion for developing and mentoring young chefs, it was a perfect fit.

During lockdown the focus shifted to the Humanitarian portfolio with the incredible Chefs with Compassion initiative, and later he took on the Finance portfolio. And now, in February 2022, his appointment to the position of Vice President was announced. “Sometimes I’ve got to pinch myself, because it’s a real honour to have been on the board for 2½ years and to get this appointment so soon,” says Chef Coo. “At the end of the day, I was elected to this position on the board by members of SA Chefs, and that’s why I’m a firm believer in making a difference to the membership. Now, going into a third term as a director and my first as VP, I’m not going to stop – at the end of the day, we serve our members.”

SA CHEFS REIMAGINED

“For us, our focus must be on SA Chefs reimagined – we can’t just rely on what we used to do,” says Chef Coo

“One of our plans for the year ahead is to hold smaller Infochefs throughout the country, filtering down to regions, cities and towns. Travelling is difficult these days, so we want to take Infochef to the chefs – we think it will be more impactful, give us a lot more contact and it lets us leave a mark wherever we go.”

However, it’s up to the members as to whether this goes ahead. “Perhaps they’d rather have more skills development training on becoming an entrepreneur – something that isn’t taught at school, that encourages chefs to think like a businessperson rather than a chef,” says Chef Coo, who says that they’ll be consulting with members on where their biggest need is right now.

Another change is that going forward SA Chefs will drop the word ‘patron’ and instead adopt partner to describe the sponsors and corporates that it works with. “We chose the word because every partner has a role to play in the journey we are walking, and it applies to all who are involved with us such as our training providers and even our members – they are all our partners.”

OPPORTUNITIES FOR CHEFS

“The lockdown has changed the way we do everything as chefs – we’re doing a lot more, for a lot less return,” says Chef Coo. “Many hotels and restaurants don’t have their full staff complement, so chefs have all had to take on more duties and multi-task. What you’ll find in many kitchens now is that the commis chef will have to take on the role of a chef de partie, or a chef de partie taking on the role of a sous chef – but they’re still bringing home the same salary.”

What this has resulted in, he says, is a growth in the use of convenience products: “In the past they were there but not always utilized, but now we’re seeing it a lot more in kitchens because they just don’t have the skills or the capacity anymore.”

This opens a new opportunity for chefs who want to start their own business – for example, says the chef, pastry chefs can use their skills and branch out into supplying hotels and restaurants with homemade macarons. “As an industry we should be supporting that sort of initiative,” says Chef Coo

On the topic of entrepreneurship, the chef chats about his plan to open his own business soon where he will focus on mentoring and growing chefs outside of his kitchen, taking them up to the next level and helping them grow in their career. “It’s important to sell a brand, and mine is all about mentoring and growing so that’s naturally where my focus lies,” says Chef Coo. “I think that every chef is a brand – you don’t have to have a Michelin star. Even as a commis chef you have your own singular brand that you build upon as you move through your career.”

RELEVANCY IN 2022

With just under 50 years of history, SA Chefs has a long legacy within the country and is the recognised body for chefs in South Africa. But cheffing as an industry has moved on in many ways since the association was started, so is it still relevant? “We’re not just a skill, we’re a profession,” says Chef Coo. “We’re not just in the kitchens of a restaurant, we’re busy writing menus, nutritional guidelines, coordinating school canteens and meal plans. A chef is there in hospitals, planes, mines… we need to be proud of this profession. Doctors, lawyers, accountants – all belong to a professional body, so why not chefs?”

However, the association is all about what you put in, says Chef Coo. “SA Chefs is here to be a partner to members, to provide a network for them. We are member driven and run. I am a member first and foremost. So if you want to see this association grow, if you want to see it tackle the things that are top of your mind, then you have to get involved.”

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