Immersing yourself in the African wilderness at Abelana Safari Camp is a magical experience, but behind the scenes in the camp’s compact bush kitchen a magic of a different kind is worked each day by Head Chef and food wizard extraordinaire, Lector Shai.
Born and raised in the village of Mashishimale, in the community that owns Abelana Game Reserve, Lector’s journey began when he left school early to help support his family.
“My father was a miner, but retired early, so it was up to me to bring money in,” he explains. “I did gardening and odd jobs while I was still at school, and eventually decided to leave so that I could focus full-time on working and making sure my family was provided for. It was hard in those days,” says Lector, but the work he was doing was leading him nowhere, with time spent in construction and general labouring not securing a full-time or permanent job. “So I sat myself down and decided to go back to my studies, moving to Johannesburg to begin a chef’s training course. It was then that I finally started on my life’s true course and began my love affair with food,” he smiles.
“My first job as a chef was at Emperor’s Palace, and I worked there and in several other large hotels, for an agency that supplied chefs to top hotels and events companies,” says Lector. “Through this, in 2006 I went to Sandton Convention Centre to work on a large conference and the executive chef was so impressed with me he offered me a job, so I spent the next few years working there and expanding my skills before moving to a large catering company as a Chef de Partie. In 2010 my mother became very ill and I took the decision to move back home to look after her. I was happy to come back to Mashishimale and worked in local restaurants in Phalaborwa, starting a family with my wife and looking after my younger sisters and brothers as well.”
Lector’s decision to move back to his home proved positive as he became a top chef at the renowned Hans Merensky resort and golf course in Phalaborwa, where he worked for six years before joining the Abelana team in September this year.
“This is my third month here and I am exceptionally happy to be here,” he smiles. “It is close to my home and more importantly I feel very inspired here because it is part of my heritage, as my community owns this land. I love working here in the bush.
“I’m very happy, and the royal family and the leaders of my community know I am here and I feel I am representing my community here on land that was restored to us, land that belonged to our ancestors. I want them to be proud of me,” says Lector, adding that the Mashishimale community is very happy about what is happening at Abelana Game Reserve.
It’s hard work, and we work long hours, but it is very rewarding. I love seeing our guests enjoying my food. I see myself here for many years to come. I love it here.” When Lector goes home on leave, he leaves his chef’s apron behind. “My wife cooks for me at home, she likes to spoil me,” he laughs. “She’s a good cook, and looks after me and my children well,” says the father of three. “My oldest daughter is 15, my eldest son is eight and I have a son of four months,” Lector grins. “It’s a big gap, but we are very happy with our new baby!”