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The story of a “hand-up” from the Wilderness Foundation Africa for an orphaned teen came full circle on Monday, 28 October 2019 when chef Phakamisa Kolisi presented a gourmet dinner for the same organisation that helped set his career in motion 11 years ago.

An invitation to dinner at the Tramways Building with Wilderness Foundation CEO Andrew Muir promised mouth-watering cuisine, extraordinary bubblies from Graham Beck, interesting company and conversation – not a bad prospect for a blustery Monday night in PE.

You can be sure though that the 16 guests invited by Muir to a Graham Beck ‘In Good Company’ dinner didn’t expect to leave with hearts warmed and spirits inspired in addition to appetites well-satisfied.

The Robertson bubbly specialists regularly host these intimate gatherings in Cape Town, inviting a handful of high-profile guests to enjoy fine dining alongside their range of top-class Cap Classique wines, but this was their first venture into the Eastern Cape.

“This isn’t about food-and-wine pairing – that can get too obnoxious. This is about relaxing, telling stories, enjoying the company of people with good food and experiencing the different styles of Cap Classique,” Graham Beck winemaker Pierre de Klerk said.

“Life is short. Celebrate it,” he advised Monday evening’s guests, who included NMB Business Chamber CEO Nomkhita Mona, PE-born global entrepreneur Rory Stear, fashion designer Jason Kieck, BKB managing director Wolf Edmayr (recently elected as the first South African president of the influential International Wool Textile Organisation), Spec-Savers boss Bryan Dowley, and the foundation’s chair Todani Moyo.

The winery and the Wilderness Foundation go back a long way, starting with a friendship and shared passion for conservation between their founders, Graham Beck and Ian Player, and now work together in conservation, environmental awareness and youth development initiatives around the Graham Beck Nature Reserve in Robertson.

So, when Graham Beck CEO Chris du Toit asked Muir if he would host an ‘In Good Company’ event in PE, he jumped at the chance, using the opportunity to showcase the success of the foundation’s youth development programmes which aim to “harness the healing power of nature, to equip vulnerable youth to be economically active and environmentally responsible citizens”.

Kolisi, now a sous chef at the Radisson Blu in the city, is one of 481 young people graduated from the foundation’s Umzi Wethu training academy since 2006. The academy trains orphaned and vulnerable youth for conservation and nature-based careers, with a focus on developing not only job skills but life skills, personal growth, social responsibility and a path to financial independence and stability.

Umzi Wethu has an impressive track record, with 75% of graduates in formal employment and 10% having advanced to middle management positions in the conservation and hospitality industries.
Orphaned in his teens, Kolisi was raised by his grandmother and developed a love of cooking by helping her cater for funerals. A scholarship to attend Umzi Wethu in 2008 set him on a career path that has seen him working at exclusive hotels and game lodges in South Africa, followed by a two-year stint in the USA, where he worked as line cook and pastry chef at upmarket resorts including Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.

A mentor for many young local chefs, with plans to open his own restaurant and create employment for others who come from backgrounds like his, Kolisi says: “Umzi Wethu taught me the value of giving back. My name means ‘lifted up’ and this is what I plan to keep on doing – lifting up others in my community and lifting up the quality of fine dining.”

To prepare and serve his impressive five-course dinner, he roped in fellow Umzi Wethu graduates Lukhanyo Jali, the Radisson’s head pastry chef, and Windermere Hotel head chef Soso Tobi, along with a team of five recent and upcoming graduates to serve the meal.

The self esteem and confidence developed in their training was clear to see as the five young women shared their fledgling careers with the guests – Asanda Yini did her internship with Hacklewood Hill Country House in Walmer and is now employed there, Sikelelwa Mbali who interned at Humewood Golf Club and is on her way to a chef job in the USA, and Andisiwe Jonashe, Nosiviwe Tshangatshanga and Nomathamsanqa Klaas who’ve recently completed internships at Herms Restaurant in Newton Park and the Marine Hotel, looking forward to graduating in December and taking up jobs in the new year.

“Hand-up” became “hands together” as guests warmly applauded the team – visible, tangible evidence that couldn’t have showcased the value of youth development any better.

“Celebrate what matters” is the Graham Beck slogan, and that we surely did on Monday.

The above article was written by Sam Venter and published in the Weekend Post on 2 November 2019

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