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Episode 31: The Tipping Point with James Khoza, President of the South African Chefs Association

Episode 31: The Tipping Point with James Khoza

A tipping point is defined as the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change. It’s a familiar theme in the story of James Khoza – a story where small moments of chance and choice make a huge difference.

James is the first South African born and trained President of the SA Chefs Association in the organization’s 46-year history. But before he stepped foot in a professional kitchen, he was on a totally different path.

In 1992, James was studying electrical engineering. On a job installing lights for a wedding at the Old Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, he walked through the kitchen to access the ballroom. That route changed everything.

“There I saw a lot of these guys in white,” he recalls. “It was method; it was discipline, like an army. I love that. I fell in love with that.” James asked one of the chefs for advice, and found out then and there what he needed to do to become a chef. He enrolled at Technikon Witwatersrand in Braamfontein to begin his studies in culinary arts.

Khoza started his new career as a demi chef de partie working under renowned Austrian chef Walter Ulz in the kitchen of the Joburg gastronomic institution, Linger Longer. There at one of the city’s oldest and most revered restaurants, he both sharped his skills and made connections. Two years in, another critical moment was on its way.

“I got to know some of the chefs in the industry because they were coming to visit Walter,” says James. “Then they said at that time, my talents are wasted at the restaurant. Why not join a hotel? Because he’s got diversity in skillsets.” He did just that, and a made a move from one gastronomic institution to another, this time joining the then Southern Sun group (now Tsogo Sun) alongside none other than the late Dr. Bill Gallagher.

His new job at the Sandton Sun did more than provide a beloved mentor. It redefined his career. He’s been there ever since, with stints abroad in France, Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, DRC, and the Michelin-starred Hugo’s in Berlin. “I’ve been lucky to come back to the same area where I started my work as a chef, at the Sandton Sun Hotel.” James is now Executive Chef, looking after conferencing and banqueting at the Sandton Convention Centre.

Now, as President of SA Chefs, he humbly credits the association’s success to the icons that came before him. “I think South Africa is really blessed. I feel a little bit intimidated because of the history sometimes, but I feel like it gives me an opportunity to work really hard, to make sure that I sustain that level of credibility, reputation and strength as well.” Yet there is no doubt he’s following in the footsteps of Chef Billy and the icons he admires, as both a mentor and a leader.

James is guiding SA Chefs through these unprecedented times with remarkable efforts to stay agile, sustainable, and impactful amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Both their paid membership of 10,000 strong and member network surpassing 45,000 are benefitting from this hard work. Their team of 8 and 11 Committees are making a tremendous impact, with efforts spanning humanitarianism, career development, gender inclusivity, young chef empowerment, and a new addition this year – chef entrepreneurship. Now more than ever, it’s a crucial resource to provide, with the  South African industry hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Chefs are by nature creative people, very creative. But they are creative only in cooking. They are not creative in business, which is a problem… Our chefs need to take off the coat, the chef jacket of arrogance, and wear the chef jacket of humility, and become more entrepreneurial. Do what is needed in that particular situation, then you survive.”

The SA Chef team takes a targeted approach to addressing how best to serve their members. There’s no blanket solution. “We have to look at their problems, what they need,” says James. To help understand the needs of the different sectors and groups within their membership, they do something that’s so often dismissed: they talk to them.

“The way to do is just to listen and listen and listen. And serve. Serve them. Don’t serve yourself. Show that you care, you have compassion. You resonate with their problems. Then they start to understand that you are for them, not against them.”

James’ commitment to his community genuinely striking. It’s deeper than just trying to deliver on needs or keep members. It’s about understanding, empathizing, and anticipating. He’s not just thinking about today. He’s also planning for tomorrow. “When the old generation left the industry, there was a huge gap,” he reflects. “We lost a lot of leaders. So my job was to try and make sure that we try and secure leaders.”

Navigating generational differences in expectations, working with the government to push the industry forward, and contending with a global pandemic, James doesn’t have an easy job. Luckily for SA Chefs, they’ve got the right man on the job.

“It’s a lot of research I do. It’s a lot of people I meet to try to solve our problems, to get counsel, to get advice. It’s not easy, but I feel like – the two years I’ve been president on this now because I just started my third year – it’s getting better. I think I’ve found that tipping point.”

James is giving a voice to culinary professionals in South Africa, but his wisdom resonates far beyond its borders. “I think our next journey is to try to lift out the whole continent of Africa and bring all these chefs together and make sure that we strengthen each other. The growth of the continent is the growth of Worldchefs as well.”

With grace and extraordinary modesty, he’s advocating for the industry community on a global scale. “That’s my message to everybody: we just have to work for each other, with each other during this time. I think we will come up better and stronger.”

Another icon in the making.

Resources

Call on your colleagues around the world. Get advice, give advice, and help support one another. We developed Worldchefs online community to help you connect with chefs around the world. Have you created your free account? Visit www.worldchefs.org/login to join now and start connecting with Worldchefs members around the globe.

You can see the latest from SA Chefs on Facebook. Also be sure to check out their fantastic magazine, SA Chef.

When it comes to sustainability, SA Chefs is using Feed the Planet projects to help serve their membership. “We feed off you, The World Association of Chefs. You provide a lot of information, even though its not made for South Africa, we try to adapt it to fit into our own scenarios.” To do the same for your association, visit www.howtofeedtheplanet.com.

“Worldchefs Academy helped us as well, because it talks to what the chefs want. And at the same time, it’s online. It doesn’t take a lot of time out of  what’s happening in the daily restaurant activities. So that helped us a lot in trying to solve the problem of illiteracy.” Discover the free Pre-Commis Chef training program at www.worldchefsacademy.com.

For more from SA Chefs, check out Episode 4 of our Feed the Planet webcast, Sustainability Around the World on Chefs with Compassion.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to James Khoza for joining us as a guest. James, we’re so happy you’ve got a horse in this race.

World on a Plate is supported by Nestlé Professional, making more possible.

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