At the top of the food chain

Executive chef Kenneth Ngubane. / Dumisani Sibeko
Executive chef Kenneth Ngubane. / Dumisani Sibeko

Executive chef Kenneth Ngubane's interest in all things culinary was aroused while waitering during his school holidays at the popular Carlton Hotel - which has since shut down - in downtown Joburg in the early 1990s.

Ngubane, 47, said he applied for in-service training to become a chef and was accepted. "After the training I continued as chef de partie, [a stationary chef in charge of a particular area]," Ngubane said.

"In 1996, I decided to join a good friend of mine, Andrew Herman, the executive chef at the new Cape Grace hotel after he asked me and my colleague, Doctor Hlongwane, to come down and work with him in Cape Town.

"That relocation opened a new world of opportunities for me because in 1997 I got to experience first hand how to prepare food for guests on a cruise ship. I was out of my comfort zone.

"It was a totally new city, [I] met new people, I had to make new friends. Work was a test of my skills for real."

While in the Mother City Ngubane also worked on three cruise ships sailing out of Cape Town to the Mediterranean Sea, Europe and South America.

It was back to Joburg for Ngubane after he was head-hunted to be part of the team of chefs at newly opened The Grace hotel, now known as 54 on Bath, in Rosebank at the end of 1997.

"I worked for only nine months at The Grace when I was recruited by another dear friend, Andrew Atkinson to work with him at the new Hilton hotel in Sandton."

Atkinson is a chef and TV personality, best known as a judge on the reality cooking competition show MasterChef.

"It was another milestone for me, a big and busy hotel, with four huge banqueting facilities. I thrive on challenges as in 2001 it was the opening of Castle Kyalami hotel."

Ngubane didn't hesitate to join the team as an executive sous chef, "meaning I was second in command".

"I was tasked with designing and setting up the kitchen, employing chefs. Basically the buck stopped with me. I took responsibility.

"I was someone who got the stick when anything went wrong.

"I had to be accountable. As they say, 'the higher you go, the colder it becomes'. I had to up my game. The three-and-a-half years spent in Kyalami was fun but challenging."

"Being in the hospitality industry was impacting on family life and relations, so I started yearning to work a 9 to 5 [job]."

Bank City in the Joburg CBD was his next stop, running all their canteens and top executives' dining areas, serving top businessmen such as the financial institution's CEOs Michael Jordaan and Sizwe Nxasana.

"I was satisfied with the rewards, the benefits and all. My family was happy but I missed the adrenalin of the hotel kitchens.

"In 2004 I then left for cruise ships in the Mediterranean, docking in France, Spain and Casablanca ,in Morocco.

"That's where I worked my butt off with no days off. The only time you get a break is when the cruise liner's guests disembark for sight seeing."

On his return Ngubane was appointed the executive chef at Mount Grace in the Magaliesburg for nine months. He has since worked for different hotels under the Tsogo Sun group. Last week he was appointed The Rosebank: Crowne Plaza's executive chef, tasked with setting up an African cuisine menu. Once again, the buck stops with Ngubane.