Persistence pays off

WOMEN are the traditional family nourishers and recipe hoarders, yet men dominate the professional culinary world.

Aida Malebe had the feeling that a woman's place was not in the kitchen when she landed her first restaurant job.

That was many years ago when she was employed as a sweeper in a bakery, on a prep line staffed by big guys in white uniforms.

Today Malebe is head pastry chef at the Centurion Lake Hotel's restaurant, Bruno's.

Read this and celebrate: Malebe is the first woman to hold such a position in this four-star hotel.

A qualified welder, the pastry wizard had no idea that her dream of becoming a chef would one day become a reality.

As a child she always enjoyed cooking and baking growing up in Mmakau Village in GaRankuwa.

But completing matric it was clear that her parents could not afford to send her to a catering college.

"So after a few years of doing odd jobs I started doing a welding course at the TEFT Training School. This earned me a certificate in welding," Malebe says.

"Then I started doing welding jobs in my home town until I got a position as cleaner in a bakery in Pretoria."

The 36-year-old saw this as an opportunity not to be missed. Unfortunately, when she approached the owner about working as a baker she was turned down. But this did not deter the determined Malebe.

She approached her brother, a chef by profession who runs a catering company, about helping out in his business.

"When I was off duty at the bakery I used to bake wedding cakes, pastries and desserts for my brother," she says.

'This is where I realised that baking and the kitchen environment were my passions."

Then she saw a position advertised for a confectionery baker at a supermarket in Pretoria.

Malebe applied and got the job.

The senior pastry chef at the supermarket recognised her talent and zeal for the job and he gave her an opportunity to prove herself. And whenever Malebe could, she would go to her brother's bakery to learn more.

"I saw this as an opportunity to enrol at a catering academy to get proper qualifications, but because of my personal responsibilities this dream did not materialise," she says.

But this did not discourage Malebe and she made a promise to herself that she would work for a hotel some day. She applied at hotels around the Pretoria area, but fate was not on her side.

She then got a job at another supermarket as a confectionary baker last year.

This is where she met the executive chef of the Centurion Lake Hotel.

The posh hotel had just opened Bruno's Deli and they were looking for someone to run the bakery section.

"I do not know what chef Louis saw in me but he knew right away that I had all the qualities he had been searching for.

"When he offered me the position at the Centurion Lake Hotel I immediately resigned at the supermarket to join chef Louis' kitchen brigade. I was lucky to meet a chef who valued skills over gender," she says with a smile.

It was a life-changing moment for this determined woman. It was her moment to prove herself.

Malebe now bakes a variety of cakes and biscuits, makes desserts and much more for Bruno's.

When asked where she sees herself in five years time she says: "I am doing what I love. With the right guidance I can continue my studies in the hotel industry and one day become a professional executive chef".

Catholic priest and writer Walter Elliot said it best: "Perseverance is not a long race, it is many short races, one after the other."

Malebe's many short races are not over but perseverance has brought her this far.