Meet Thabiso – Abelana River Lodge’s “food doctor”!

It was apparently Hippocrates who said “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food” which makes perfect sense to Thabiso Luthuli, sous chef at Abelana River Lodge. As a child he had ambitions of becoming a doctor, but a love affair with food saw him gravitate towards hospitality. Now he’s a self-confessed “food doctor and loving every minute spent in the lodge’s beautiful, state-of-the-art kitchen.

Thabiso was born in 1991 and raised in Durban, a far cry from the African wilderness he now finds himself in. “Growing up there were five of us kids at home, with mum working away from home a lot and dad working late,” explains Thabiso. “I remember as a child of seven having to prepare supper for all of us – for some reason it fell to me to make food and I loved doing it. When she was home, my mum showed me recipes and how to do things properly, and that’s where the love affair started, I think,” he adds.

“I started studying hospitality at high school in Grade 10. From there I went to community college in Morningside in Durban and completed my diploma after doing a six-month practical at the Hilton. The Hilton offered me a permanent position and after 18 months I was promoted to chef de partie,” Thabiso says. Almost two years later he moved to the Alpine Heath resort in the Drakensberg where he worked as a sous chef in the busy resort restaurant’s pastry section. “I was in charge of pastry, pizzas and the cold kitchen and had 15 staff working under me that I was training at the same time,” he smiles.

From Alpine Heath he moved to the Lowveld and a renowned private game reserve, spending a year as a sous chef before taking up the opportunity to move to Abelana River Lodge earlier this year, working as head chef J L Kruger’s “righthand man”!

“I work mostly with pastry as I absolutely love baking,” says Thabiso. “But I help in all areas of the kitchen, helping to train junior staff,” he adds. Thabiso’s motivation is the guests and in this respect lockdown has been particularly hard for him. “I’ve missed having the opportunity to make guests happy with our menus and our amazing food here,” he says. Thank goodness inter-provincial travel is now allowed and Abelana River Lodge is already welcoming guests from across South Africa. “It’s great to be back in action,” says Thabiso. “There’s nothing like the buzz you get from a busy kitchen and a bustling lodge,” he laughs.

Thabiso takes his career very seriously and believes in hard work… “You have to work for the things you want and be prepared to work your way up from the bottom, learning all aspects of the business,” he says, wisely. He’s appreciative of the experience he has had in his career thus far, and says it’s important to share the things he has learned. “I love teaching trainee chefs and junior members of the team and would love to eventually move into teaching and lecturing so I can help trainee chefs understand what life is like in a busy kitchen and what to expect once they are qualified,” says Thabiso.

He’s loving life at Abelana River Lodge and enjoys being in the bush… “It’s a far cry from the city, and was a shock at first, but I really enjoy being close to nature,” he says.

“Working in the kitchen here is wonderful, especially working with JL – I am learning so much from him and he is a real inspiration, helping me to strive to exceed expectations,” says Thabiso.

What are his ambitions? The budding baker smiles… “In 10 years’ time I’d like to have my own bakery, creating wedding cakes and gateaux,” he says. “I love baking. It’s my passion. My favourite cakes to bake are red velvet and carrot cake.” Is this perhaps the future Paul Hollywood of South Africa? He laughs… And admits that the prospect of a “bake-off” appeals to him. “I’d love to enter some food competitions and pit my talents against other top chefs,” he says. “It would really stretch me and show me what I’m made of!”

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