Fifth group of aspirant chefs enrolled at Singita School of Cooking

The Singita School of Cooking (SSC) in the Kruger National Park has enrolled its fifth intake of students to commence their training as aspirant chefs. These young men and women from surrounding rural communities on the outskirts of the Park, have shown a real passion for cooking, having been selected for their special aptitude for this career.  The school is a living example of Singita’s inspiring approach to ‘giving back’ at each of its 10 different lodges in four iconic destinations in Africa, and of its modern conservation model that recognizes the need for a finely tuned relationship between Wildlife, Tourism and Local Communities.

The nine new chef students have started their 18-month training on site at the Singita Staff Village. On completion, the training course will allow them to graduate with the knowledge, skills and confidence that this life-changing opportunity provides - well qualified to apply for a Commis Chef position in a professional kitchen at a Singita lodge, or any other safari lodge or hotel.

Located within the Singita Staff Village that serves both Singita Lebombo and Singita Sweni lodges on the far eastern reaches of the Kruger National Park, the SSC was founded by one of Singita’s own chefs, who dreamed of training and developing local youth to work as chefs in the Singita kitchens. With the backing of the Singita Management team, the school first opened in 2007, and, fiveshort years later, is one of Singita’s most rewarding community success stories, having trained 30 young chefs to date, 14 of whom are gainfully employed. Among these, six now work as Commis Chefs at Singita’s lodges in Southern Africa, and two former students have already been promoted to the position of Demi Chef de Partie.  Many other graduates have been placed at lodges in and around the Kruger National Park, while some have chosen to continue with their careers elsewhere.

The school is headed by Chef Skills Developer Oriel Mbowane, himself previously a Sous Chef at Singita Sweni.  Mbowane is proud of the successes achieved at the school in the last five years, and of the students that he has mentored, Katlego Malumane from the town of Welverdiend, is at the top of his list. This determined young woman with her dazzling smile and friendly ‘can-do’ disposition, was selected for training in 2010 through sheer perseverance, and has proved to be one of the brightest talents to emerge from the school.  She matriculated in 2007, and initially applied at the SSC in 2009, but was not chosen for that particular intake. Undeterred by this temporary set back, she then volunteered to work at the school for one year, where she proved to be such a valuable asset, that she was promptly selected as one of the students for the next intake of trainees. Graduating from the Singita School of Cooking lastmonth (March 2012), Malumane completed her training with flying colours, and has been offered a position as Commis Chef at Singita Lebombo Lodge.

Caroline Burke, General Manager Singita Kruger National Park says: ‘In remote, rural areas equipping even one person with a good job and sound prospects, has a burgeoning effect on members of their immediate family, as well as the broader community. Besides providing a much-needed income, these young people also provide inspiration, energy and leadership to their peers in under-developed areas. At Singita we are very proud to be able to make this contribution to the development of people in the regions where we operate.’

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The SSC was first established in 2007, by Kurt Abrahams, previously a Senior Sous Chef at Singita Sweni, to enable local youth to staff the kitchens. At the time, kitchens at Singita Kruger National Park were staffed by junior chefs from far away cities, as local staff with the right foundation skills, were proving almost impossible to locate.  Its remote location was also a challenge for local villagers, whose homes were a three hour drive away. True to its commitment to community development,  Singita decided that ‘interns’ from the local community would be trained to ‘practice’ in the staff kitchen, with a view to gaining experience in the lodge kitchens.

Singita inherited buildings from the South African Defence Force which subsequently became Singita’s staff village within the Park.  After they were renovated these buildings included a kitchen infrastructure which could accommodate a school of this nature.  

Eight to ten students are selected during each learnership term – based upon clear criteria including showing a real interest in cooking – to participate in the formal 18-Month Learnership programme. This year the nine young people selected, participated in a cook-off during which they demonstrated their natural aptitude to correctly handle kitchen utensils such as cutting boards and knives. They were further selected based on their enthusiasm, creativity and by demonstrating their ability to duplicate certain cooking skills.

What distinguishes this school from similar training institutions, is the opportunity it offers for trainee chefs to practise their craft in the kitchens of Singita’s award-winning lodges. They are supported by professional chefs employed here who voluntarily share their culinary and service expertise with the young talent. Testimony to their dedication, the SSC workbook for trainees was devised by former Singita Sweni Senior Sous Chef, Donna Patterson. The fact that it has the ability to offer entry-level opportunities to those who emerge from this programme, by way of its relationships with other lodges, is also a strong determining factor. 

The cooking school is jointly funded by Singita and its partners.  The South African government contributes through its support for Learnerships. Students are provided with chef’s uniforms, essential kitchen equipment, all their meals, accommodation and transport to ensure their daily attendance at classes. Individual sponsorships for learners are also an option, and are a rewarding way for many guests to become involved in this project.