Shongwe, a former Hospitality Management student, currently resides and practices in an area locally known as France’s ‘Bread Basket’, which is located on the river Creuse in the heart of the Indre et Loire region, home to the finest goat’s cheese producers, and where winemaking has been deeply rooted for centuries.
The 27-year old says, “I entered a competition in 2019 for a six-week internship at Le Calabash in the Loire Valley in France. It was held at the Saxon Hotel Villas and Spa. They chose three interns and I was the fourth. Being selected came as a shock, it was like an outer body experience because I was surrounded by a lot of great chefs.”
Though her dream to join top chefs in France was almost shattered by the two-year lockdown, Shongwe says the experience was worth the wait, as she has already learnt a lot in the two weeks she has been there.
Shongwe will receive all the training she can imagine at Le Calabash since the restaurant also offers cookery courses, which provides a hands-on opportunity to develop culinary skills in a practical and supportive learning environment.
“French people love food which is good news to the hospitality industry. In every town there’s a small food market where farmers sell their fresh produce on a weekly basis,” she continues.
“France really embodies what organic farming is because you will go to the supermarket and find unwashed carrots still full of dirt. They are also home to the largest food hub/ food market in the world. Their food is easily traceable - you know where the chicken you’re eating came from, how it was raised and how long it lived. Those little things matters and everyone is so aware.”
“I met two South African winemakers and a chef who won the internship with me in 2019 and is now based in Belgium,” she says.
Shongwe, who inherited her love for cooking from her father and grandmother, has settled well in the home of the Eiffel Tower.
Always be willing and eager to learn
Shongwe urges young people to find a way to keep their skillset alive and functional. She cautions them to always know that there will be challenges along the way, but that hard work will see them through, as will a thorough understanding of the industry they are in.
“Conduct research about your industry and make sure that your CV is concise and readable,” she adds.
“The challenges will always be there. Though they differ, since people are not the same, so the way you deal with the challenge determines your next step. I always remind myself that I cannot be like anyone else because our journeys are different even if the goal is the same. Picking up good habits will help a lot.”
Shongwe says she used her time at the University of Mpumalanga wisely and grabbed every opportunity that came her way.
“My lecturers taught me what most people don’t realise, which is that hospitality management is not just about food. It mostly focuses on the hotel or accommodation based establishments especially the front of house but somehow I managed to get into a kitchen and learn.”
Initially Shongwe was anxious about the hospitality industry after it was badly affected by Covid-19 and lockdowns. But her time in France has restored a positive feeling about the industry she loves so much.
The young chef started her schooling at Ermelo Christian School and completed her primary career at White River Primary and high school at Rob Ferreira High School. She wants to see herself making an impactful change in the hospitality industry.
“There aren’t enough female-headed kitchens at the moment and I feel determined enough to keep learning and inspire my peers so that we can make it to the top.”
In a few weeks’ time Shongwe will be back in South Africa and aims to share her experience with other local chefs and customers at a restaurant, Kitchen Co. Bistro and Bar in White River, where she currently works..
@ Story Lisa Thabethe. Pictures Supplied.