Sam Ramokoka – the new Executive Chef at the Cradle Boutique Hotel in the Cradle of Humankind – has come a long way since he quit studying mechanical engineering at Vaal University of Technology.
He opted out of mechanical engineering because he “didn’t like it”, and, although his parents were not pleased, he was determined to make a life in the culinary industry.
It all started with mom
Ramokoka’s cooking journey began with helping his mother, who worked for a scripture union campsite where she made simple meals like soup and mac and cheese.
“I loved helping her and knew early on that food was my future,” he says.
His journey began 16 years ago as a sculler in the Mount Grace Hotel kitchen.
Within six months, the chef had promoted him to commis assistant chef. A commis is a basic chef in larger kitchens who works under a chef de partie to learn the station's or range's responsibilities and operations. This can be a chef who has recently completed formal culinary training or is still undergoing training.
“I had to do all the jobs the chefs didn’t like. But I was curious. I wanted to know more, and I asked questions. I ended up standing in front of guests frying eggs and making omelettes. That’s when I realised that this is what I want to do in life and knew I needed the right qualifications,” Ramokoka says.
He enrolled with Mafikeng Hotel School, despite being refused help by his (then) unsupportive parents. They have come around since then, he says, and are proud of his considerable achievements.
Ramokoka needed R7 000 (€348) for registration and received it from his hotel employers, to whom he returned after three years of training.
Move to Cape Town
Two years after his training, Mount Grace Head Chef, Trever Boyd – whom Sam names as one of his mentors – moved to Franschhoek in the Cape and invited the young commis join him as chef de partie.
“I’d never been to Cape Town but I was willing to give it a try. All the magazines I read led me to believe Cape Town, with its wine farms and fine restaurants, was a place where I could learn.”
His favourite celebrity chef, Reuben Riffel, was also based there.
“At Le Franschhoek Hotel, Trevor Boyd gave me the opportunity to grow myself. In two years, I was promoted to junior sous chef. I was climbing the ladder quickly.”
At a chef’s forum, Ramokoka met Chef Franc Lubbe, the newly appointed chef at Mount Grace who told him an à la carte restaurant, the Rambling Vine, was opening at the hotel and that he had the skills to run it.
“He organised a cook-off I had to do for the GM and was hired as senior sous chef at Rambling Vine. It was a big challenge. The restaurant was new; I had to come up with a new menu and train the staff. I’d come from a junior position and now had to manage people – some older than me. I had to find a way to communicate where I was firm without being rude.”
He is hugely proud of how well the restaurant did during his tenure, staying in the top five on Eat Out for four years.
From there, he was appointed as executive sous chef at Mount Grace, then moved on to Protea Hotel Manor as executive chef. Within 12 years, the young man – now 43 – went from sculler to executive chef.
The hotel offers something different
Ramokoka says he loves his new job at Cradle Boutique Hotel: “The Cradle is a very beautiful place to work. We take our ecotourism status very seriously. I leave Midrand in terrible traffic – and by the time I turn into this property, my breathing has slowed and I am calmer, happier.”
He believes the hotel offers something different: “I’ve worked in places where life is too busy, where you can’t really be yourself. In cities and towns, people treat food differently. The Cradle gives me an opportunity to create homely food that people enjoy. I get to meet the clients, to talk to them. To understand what they want.
“Our menu lets you know and feel where you are – in the place where humankind began. We honour this by sourcing as much of our produce locally; we grow our own tomatoes and lettuce; we make our own bread; our oxtail is cooked with love.”
He reveals the five things that you will always find in his pantry: salt, flour, rosemary thyme and garlic.
“You can’t start a meal without those,” he says, adding that his death row meal would be the tripe and samp that his mother makes.
“I’ve tried to make it, doing exactly what she tells me to do, but it never comes out the way she makes it.”
‘People want easy healthy cooking’
Ramokoka says chefs have to be cognisant of the fact that modern diners are making healthy choices and that they need to consider healthy options when creating a menu. He says most days, during service, he is asked to cook without oil or carbs.
“Also, people are busy with time constraints. They want easy healthy cooking.”
‘I love being where humankind began’
Ramokoka describes himself as a family person. He and his wife Motshepo – an assistant food and beverage manager at Mount Grace Hotel where they met – have three children: daughter Kathlego, 14, son Neo, 10 and baby girl, Wandile.
“We’ve been married 17 years but knew each other for six years before we married. Juggling our schedules is hard, but we make it happen. My children lived with my parents for a few years until I realised I was missing out on so much of their childhood. They now live with us, and we work around them.”
Ramokoka ends saying: “I love my family. I love what I do. I love being here – where humankind began. I am a lucky man!”
The Cradle Boutique Hotel is within the Greater Cradle Nature Reserve. The privately owned 9 000-hectare Unesco World Heritage Site close to Johannesburg is a unique ecotourism destination boasting three active Palaeoanthropological sites.