Jackie Cameron has a lot on her plate. At the beginning of last month, KwaZulu-Natal’s best-known chef opened the Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine after months of dealing with bureaucracy, administrative dramas, late deliveries and the whole gamut of things that can go wrong when starting a business. It was frustrating, especially for someone as singularly focused as she is. The school has been 10 years in the planning. It’s taken years to organise business licenses, convert her parents’ old Hilton farmhouse, build a wine cellar (she did this five years ago) and get the qualifications to become a culinary instructor.
“At the same time I had to give 110% to my job.” Which, quite clearly, she managed with aplomb. During her 12 years as the award-winning executive chef of Hartford House in Mooi River, she put the fine-dining restaurant on the culinary map. She has also produced a range of stylish chefs’ aprons and jackets. “We are part of a new age,” she says. “We need to take pride. The time of huge chefs in dirty uniforms is over.” She also knew she would be opening her school, and why would she want her students in someone else’s work wear?
Her 2013 book, Jackie Cameron Cooks At Home, became – within three months – the second highest-selling cookbook in the country. It was a natural progression from her seven years of columns in The Witness. “Initially my phone number was in the paper and I would get scores of calls from readers asking questions. I spent the next seven years learning from the feedback. It’s why the book sold out – it was approachable.”
She has accepted only five students for the first semester. She was advised to take whoever applied; that the first rule of business is to make money. She’s not so sure. “I think it makes more business sense to choose the right people. It is no longer me signing my name at the bottom of a plate. I’m signing my name to a person. If I send out average quality it will be embarrassing.”
The interviews were intense, and the students as well as their parents signed contracts. From day one they were responsible for their own training. “I want to train people who have character, people with something special, something unique. They need determination rather than a palate. A good palate can be learned.” The school is modern in every sense. Cameron says her courses reflect what the restaurants of today are all about.
“I’ve had learners in my kitchen at Hartford who could make a brioche but not a basic white sauce. These learners need to learn to sign kitchen orders, to prepare the staff meal, to spend time with suppliers.” They will visit the Cape Winelands, learn terminology from a French linguist, understand costing, ice cakes, bake bread, grow their own produce, even catch fish. “The fish module ends on a Friday,” she says. “On the Monday they have to come to school with a fish. They need to appreciate what a mission it is to catch one.”
She is excited to see how things will turn out. “I’m not blind to the problems that might arise, but it will be amazing to see what they can achieve in 18 months with their passion and enthusiasm.”
- Best food memory: Standing on a chair, four years old, next to my grandmother, making bread. “Get your back into it,” she would tell me.
- Can’t live without: Umami flavours such as chicken livers.
- Favourite fast/processed food: All Gold tomato sauce.
- Favourite ingredient: Innards. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and eating them.
- Enjoy cooking for the family: It used to be roast chicken. Now it’s spaghetti bolognese with lots of good quality red wine.
- Don’t eat: Celery, peppers, crab sticks and fish fingers.
- Won’t try: I’ll try everything except the brain of a live monkey.
- Favourite appliance: My Thermomix, and at home my Elba stove.
- New discovery: Everything related to this business.
- Most over-rated ingredient: People are getting carried away with beetroot.
- My kitchen quirk: I make a lot of noise. I talk continuously. If I get cross I become monotone and monosyllabic.