Reuben Riffel (RR): We haven’t really spoken properly in a while, Jackie.
Jackie Cameron (JC): I was thinking about the last time I saw you, when you popped in at the school. I never told the students you were coming, and after you left, they were like, “How could you do that to us?” It was the best surprise that they’d ever had.
RR: Yeah. It’s nice to connect with the kids coming into the industry. How are they still so enthusiastic?
JC: I always say that I have the best job. It’s great to come downstairs every day and just have the most passionate students. They all feed off each other, for lack of a better word, and they get so enthusiastic. And then we bring somebody like you into the picture and it shows them what is out there if they work hard.
RR: I look at the people my kids follow on social media. And you can follow people in other parts of the world or meet people from your own community, people who have become successful. I never understood the importance of that. I look at where I came from and I didn’t really have that. I didn’t even know whom to look up to at that stage. I just wanted to do the work and see how I could grow in it.
JC: Yeah, that was exactly my situation. We did it, I feel, because we were working hard. It wasn’t for the awards, it wasn’t for the recognition, it wasn’t for how many likes you were going to get.
RR: Exactly. The end goal was never to be well known. But listen, how have these past two years affected your business, in terms of the number of students you could take on and placements?
JC: When it all started, we began doing a lot of charity. I had been involved with a feeding scheme, but it really kicked off over this time. The course is flexible, so we could manoeuvre things. Last year the students came back and they just cooked and cooked and cooked. Normally, the cooking happens over the entire year and now it happened in two months. Up until June, July, my intake numbers were ridiculously low. Now, as things are opening up, we are getting a lot of inquiries, but it’s still not what it was like in the past. But for me, it’s a job in which you can make your family proud, you can travel the world — and the people you meet! I think people who are in the industry are really passionate about it, and we do so well because it’s never work for us.
RR: Especially in our industry, in our country, there are many people who are passionate about cooking and the industry itself. And that’s why I think we have been pretty lucky that we’ve had a break in terms of opportunities in the industry. There are so many amazing chefs, and I’m always saying, “Why have I never heard of you?” And, obviously, the media highlights certain people. For us too, the past two years have been kind of hectic. I wanted to stay positive, but I also wanted to stay realistic. When you start looking at how much potential income you’ve lost, having to lay off staff, even as a last resort, those things had a massive effect on a lot of us, emotionally, and I’m still battling with that.
JC: I’m always focusing on the positive and what I can gain, what I can learn. Especially on the business side. For instance, I have a loan partner that gave me a huge loan to get the kitchens at my school. And they reduced the monthly instalments to a quarter of what I was meant to be paying. If I’d been dealing with a bank, I wouldn’t have a school today. We just need to get busy. I really do believe that, for the restaurants and businesses that are still standing, it’s like the baby boom after World War 2.
RR: The more I talk to people who are in the industry, the more I realise it is important for us to talk about how we dealt with it. None of us thought it was going to last this long, then all of a sudden you really had to start thinking of how you were going to survive.
JC: I think the biggest thing is that we are not alone.
RR: Yeah. I’d like to think that we learned from it, in terms of our approach to the people who work in the industry. How do we change, so it becomes an industry that’s more approachable and not too crazy and where you can still have a bit of a real life? Sometimes people come into the industry and then their passion is just obliterated because they can’t work in that environment or the hours that are expected from them. I think it’s somewhere in between, because you’re still going to have to work hard.
JC: I think with anything in life you have to work if you want to achieve. That’s what I say to my students. But there’s such a stigma about the industry, that it’s “so hard and it’s so tough and it’s such long hours”. If you’re going to be good at anything in life, a Springbok cyclist or whatever, you’ve got to put in those extra hours. But, yes, how do we make this industry more desirable to the youth?
RR: Look, I think it’s important to think of the hours and the effort that you put in, so you feel eventually that whatever you’ve put in, you’ll get something out of it. And there are probably going to be more people looking at being entrepreneurs.
JC: I can see with a lot of my students, it’s hugely important on my side to empower them to have their own businesses. It’s interesting to see how many of them actually are opening up their own businesses and focusing on chocolate or ice cream and finding what they are passionate about. I think with food, so many different avenues have opened up, if you think about all the frozen food and all the takeaway boxes…
RR: How do you see the industry being changed by what we went through now?
JC: I think we are all getting tired of one virtual meeting after another. Initially I was like, “This is such a fantastic idea. I don’t even have to get into a car and go to Joburg for a meeting.” Now I’m like, “Put me in that car and I’m going to Joburg. I don’t care about the traffic.” Looking to the future, I think people are cooking more at home and that means they expect a higher standard in restaurants.
RR: Even before Covid-19 we were sitting on an idea to do a Dutch- or Belgian-style “fritery” in Franschhoek. I think South Africa is ripe for another restaurant franchise. I’ve always had a dream to start something like that. Obviously, we started small here in Franschhoek, it’s called Let’s Frite and it’s basically burgers and triple-cooked fries and a hell of a lot of sauces. It’s definitely something I want to put some more effort into. It’s almost like the industry is just waiting to fast-forward again, you know?
JC: I get that sense too. I’ve started a baby-food range. As my daughter was beginning to eat solids, I started questioning things like, “Where does this come from? What is in there?” So I ordered food online, and the apple purée would be brown. My Granny Smith apple puree is green! And it’s natural. It’s been quite an interesting process. I’m proud of it.
• Jackie Cameron has published two best-selling cookbooks and runs the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine in the KZN Midlands.
• Reuben Riffel is an award-winning chef, a judge on MasterChef South Africa, and the mastermind behind a portfolio of acclaimed restaurants.
• From the November edition of Wanted, 2021.