A Day in the Life of a Catering Chef

catering chef

It didn’t take catering chef Natasha Swart very long to realise that she was going to live out her passion for food and creativity by creating her own business. As co-owner of the Cape Town based catering company Black & Co. She enjoys preparing delicious and healthy catering treats. Together with her sister and co-owner Nadia, she works up a storm in their beautiful, quaint kitchen, and delivers nothing short of the finest gourmet selection. At a recent office function, EduConnect got to taste her creations first-hand. To find out more about a typical day in Natasha’s life, we met with her for a cup of coffee and a chat.

  • Can you give us an example of what a typical busy day would look like for you?
Time of Day Activity Comments
05:30h Get up, get dressed and head to the kitchen to be there by 6am. Even if there is no job on a given day, I get up at the same time to maintain the routine and discipline.
06:00h Start prepping for the upcoming job – turn on ovens, check that ingredients are in fridge, start cooking & baking We do a lot of prepping the night before. It depends on how big the next day’s job is. Prep can take hours because we make everything from scratch – every mayonnaise, every sauce.
13:00h Check the order and relevant emails to make sure we haven’t missed anything
14:00h Lunch break Some days we don’t get around to having a proper lunch because things get so busy.
16:00h Deliver food to the function, lay out platters, get ready to cater We sometimes pull in friends to help us with deliveries
01:00am Get home On a more quiet day, or when we don’t need to be present at the job, I’ll get home around 7pm

 

  • What and where did you study?

I attended the Silwood School of Cookery in 2010, the culinary school in Rondebosch where I studied cooking.

My situation was quite unique, because my mother had gone to Silwood too and was a chef 20 years ago, so my whole life had been about learning how to cook. I chose to only do the first year, because I felt like I just needed that extra bit of practical knowledge on top of everything I had already learnt.

In 2nd and 3rd year you get put into the industry, and at that point I had already decided that I didn’t want to work in a restaurant.[/su_service]

  • Do you need a formal qualification to be a catering chef?

I think that in many industries, if you have the right mindset and are creative, and if you’re talented in a certain sector – you don’t need to study.

However, I do think that it can be extremely beneficial. The year I did at Silwood was really good for me. It taught me the traditional basics of French cooking, and once you have that discipline and proper understanding of the method and theory behind everything…you’re actually able to make anything.

Also, we’re so lucky to be living in this technology age where we can just turn to platforms like Youtube or Google when we get stuck, and we’ll be able to find the answer within minutes.

  • What’s the best part about your job?

My favourite part about my job is having the opportunity to be creative with different ingredients. It’s so exciting to go into a shop and see some weird thing you’ve never heard of and then try to figure out a dish with that ingredient.

  • What do you enjoy least?

There are plenty of unglamorous aspects in the catering industry, like cleaning up after a function and getting home really late. In our kitchen we clean as we go, so we don’t go home until everything is done.

This kind of work also leaves you with very little free time. I can’t recall when last I had a full weekend to myself. Having said this though, because I love cooking and love what I do, the fact is that I don’t really mind that I don’t get many weekends.

When you love your job, it’s not the end of the world when you have to sacrifice your weekend.

  • Why are you so opposed to the restaurant industry?

Working in a restaurant can be great. In fact, I have many friends that do it. It’s just not for me. I prefer having a lot of variety and not prepare the same kind of food every day. I’m a creative that needs things to be a bit unpredictable and spontaneous. That’s what I find exciting.

  • How did Black & Co. start?

We officially launched in January 2015. It took us a long time to come up with a name, because most of the names we considered creative were already registered. We finally came up with Black & Co. because our surname is Swart – which means black in Afrikaans, and the Co. relates to our friends who we sometimes pull in for extra help.

The biggest reason for starting this business was because I didn’t want to work in the restaurant industry where I’d be subject to the same daily routine. I like being creative and experimenting with food, and having the opportunity to do different things every week.

  • Does Black & Co. specialise in any types of food?

Most of our food is quite healthy – apart from the cakes of course. We try to cook everything with the freshest ingredients we can get. We also try to go as organic as possible, because it enhances the overall taste of the foods. We definitely put a lot of effort into the flavour of the food.

  • Do you and Nadia split up your cooking responsibilities?

Yes. I’m in charge of everything savoury, and she’s in charge of everything sweet.

  • What is a typical starting salary or income?

Chefs generally don’t make a lot of money, especially in the beginning. When you start out with your own catering company, it kind of depends on the amount and size of functions or jobs you do per month.

At the very beginning, you can expect to make about R6000 a month. As you get your name out there and your business takes off, your income and profit will increase – and the fastest way to do this is making yourself known through word of mouth. That is how we have taken off.[/su_service]

  • What qualities does someone need to work in this career?

To work in this field, a person needs to be

  • capable of working under pressure.

Sometimes you’ll have a sudden disaster and you just have to think really fast about how to solve the problem. Sometimes you may mess up and have to quickly throw something else together if there isn’t enough time to remake something.

  • have excellent time management.

Timing is extremely important. It’s actually the most important factor in cooking. Not only do you need to manage your time to prep, cook, and deliver, but sometimes you have three different things cooking at the same time and need to make sure none of it burns.

  • be genuinely interested and passionate about it.

As cliché as it may sound – food is my life. Given the occasion that I do have free time, I’ll be sitting at home researching for hours and hours, looking at beautiful food photos, getting inspiration for my next dish, and trying to improve on other people’s ideas.

What can I say – it’s life. Food is life.

  • Do you have some quirky advice for anyone wanting to do this job?

Learn to resist picking at all the delicious food you are cooking or baking! It’s very tempting to eat the things you are making. I used to do that and put on a lot of weight, which was a bit traumatising. So after that experience I learnt to differentiate tasting with eating.

I mean, apart from putting on the kilos, you can end up feeling quite sick – especially on days when you are cooking your weaknesses. For me that is anything fried, or anything with cheese.

  • Any last pearls of wisdom?

When you start your own catering business, you have to be prepared to do anything. For example, I’m my own personal assistant, my own marketing researcher, and sometimes I need to be my own graphic designer too.

There’s a lot more to bigger catering functions than people realise. There’s the hiring, the coordination of all the waiters and other chefs I call in for help. Don’t underestimate the work you need to put in, especially in the beginning.

EduConnect 2cents

If you are thinking of starting your own catering business, it’s gonna take some trial and error. You’ll start by slowly expanding your network, and over time, you’ll become more and more confident in the service you provide. It’s not always easy in the beginning, but you’ll eventually get the hang of it. For starters, you can get some tips from Phoebie…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fA6iyUBPUyI

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