The Distell Inter-Hotel Challenge marked its 10th anniversary this year, and it certainly did so in style! Young chefs, wine stewards, bakers and baristas from hotels around the country were put through their paces in this year’s challenge, with mentorship and guidance provided by industry leaders.

After a rocky few years for hospitality, it was incredibly rewarding to be at the Distell Inter-Hotel Challenge Awards, surrounded by the industry’s who’s who and the up-and-comers that took part in the 2023 competition. The room was buzzing and it was a privilege to be a part of the goodwill and camaraderie that was very much on display. The challenge was conceived by Chania Morritt-Smith and Annette Kesler of Showcook.com, and Distell has been the leading sponsor of the national contest from the start. “We’re so proud and excited to be supporting the challenge, for the 10th consecutive year. It provides an important platform for building and honing much-needed hospitality skills in a country where tourism is a major contributor to GDP,” said the company’s acting director of corporate affairs, Eric Leong Son.

From the outset, the focus of the awards has been to transfer skills and create career opportunities. “Over the years, we have given more accent to training competitors to prepare for the awards, as both a motivator and to raise standards,” says Chania. Focus and training were given to such areas as wine service, food and wine pairing, mixology, cheffing, baking, barista, kitchen and concierge skills, while building eco-sustainability awareness, she said.

“We would never have come this far without the support and expertise of South Africa’s foremost hospitality general managers. Mentorship starts with interest and enthusiasm at the top. By putting training and support systems in place, top management enables goal-driven staff who, in turn bring others into the network to enrich the talent pool.” While there were many incredible contestants that were highlighted for their talents in the challenge categories, we chatted to three of the winners that will be travelling overseas to take part in internships and honing their skills at renowned establishments.

Pieter Bekker | Wine Steward of the Year

The Taj Hotel in Cape Town’s Pieter Bekker won the title of wine steward of the year, and as part of his prize will spend ten days interning at Ireland’s The Lodge at Ashford Castle that forms part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection. He also wins Sommelier Academy, South African Sommeliers’ Association and Cape Wine Academy courses, as do the most promising and up and coming stewards.

The first day of the competition was a definite highlight – I was able to meet all the contenders and got a glimpse into what was to come. I knew that this was the start of something special and that I’d come out the other side having learnt and grown in amounts one can only dream of in such a short time.

One moment that I was particularly proud of was when, after my session, the Distell camera crew asked me to remake my cocktail for extra footage. Everything went incredibly smoothly and it almost felt like I was on a TV show as I was making it and talking them through the recipe and process – to date it was probably my best cocktail making performance!

A skill that I’ll take away with me is elegance and service etiquette, especially from our sessions with JV Ridon from SASA. His passion for wine service is unrivalled, and every time I serve a bottle of wine I’ll do it better because of his training and influence.

I’m looking forward to all the amazing wines I’ll be tasting on my trip to The Lodge at Ashford Castle, but even more so just to rub shoulders with some of the best in the business and learn the tips and tricks that their experience has taught them. I plan to listen, learn and implement.

Senzo Mlambo | Chef of the Year

From 54 on Bath, Chef Senzo Mlambo will intern with the global Valor Hospitality group, travelling to the US to work at The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

The highlight of the competition experience (besides my name being called as chef of the year!) was actually the whole journey that I experienced, from practising the dishes to the actual day of the challenge where I presented them.

It’s really hard to choose just one item of the meal that I served that I’m proudest of, because the products we were given to work with were of exceptional quality. That’s why myself and other chefs were able to produce such amazing food on the day.

A long-term value that I’ve gotten out of the competition is to inspire, pay it forward and to raise the culinary standard in our beautiful land.

I’ve never left the shores of South Africa, so I’m planning to make the most of my trip to America! I’m looking forward to seeing what knowledge I’ll be soaking up during my time there. I can’t wait to get on that plane and to the property – it’s going to be an out of this world experience for me.

Eon le Roux | Pastry Chef of the Year

Pastry chef of the year, Eon le Roux of Southern Sun’s Elangeni & Maharani, will be interning in central France for three weeks at the Château de la Creuzette in Boussac.

My highlight of the challenge was meeting different chefs from all over South Africa.

I was proudest of the baked cheesecake I created for the challenge. I managed to use all the recommended ingredients from the sponsors, using different techniques with the pistachio biscotti base and giving it a rustic look.

The values and skills I’ll take away from the Challenge is determination, perseverance and planning.

I’m most looking forward to working hard during my internship prize, as well as experiencing a different culture and developing skills in a top-class establishment.