Stephen Hickmore goes behind the scenes with the chefs of the National Culinary Team, describing the Olympic experience, the highs and the lows and, most importantly, the strength of team spirit.

I had the privilege of attending the 2016 IKA Culinary Olympics in the beautiful and picturesque town of Erfurt in Germany. Erfurt is the regional capital of Thuringia and is one of the most intact medieval cities in Germany, having survived World War II with very little damage. A fabulous setting to welcome 59 nations and over 2000 chefs from 22 – 25 October. The opening ceremony was a grand evening, cheering parades of chefs from all over the globe with some fielding hundreds of members. In amongst them, our proud Culinary Springboks, receiving great applause as they took the stage to their African Dream theme tune. Although Team Masakhane were small, with only 13 team members, my colleagues from team sponsors LSC and Imperial group and I felt goose bumps as our South African flag was paraded. The energetic Juniors under the guidance of manager Klaus Beckmann consisted of Zandria Platt, Tayla Schou, Thabang Masango, Thapelo Aphane, Jasmin Marsal and Tevin Evans.

The spirited seniors led by Team manager Heinz Brunner were Henrico Grobbelaar, Dion Vengatass, Blake Anderson, Trevor Boyd, Minette Smith, Kirstin Hellemann and Arno Ralph. Our chefs are all volunteers, picked from the very best available in South Africa and have trained for this moment for over two years. Thomas Overbeck, General Manager of SA Chefs Association commented, “To see the power of all these top chefs in one room brings home what it means to be a chef, the commitment and pride, an emotional and rich experience.” According to team captain Henrico Grobbelaar, there was no rest for the guys after the ceremony, no early night, no tour of the lovely Erfurt, no German beer. It was straight down to work to prepare for the Cold Kitchen competition. They knew that an “all-nighter” was in order as the dishes had to be on display for the judges at 7AM, and it wasn’t all plain sailing. One of the team members realised that they didn’t have the micro herbs needed for one of the dishes. Using his stealth, he snuck into a garden near their practice kitchen and deftly and quietly harvested all that was needed. Little did he know that this was not going to be the only “hitch” whilst procuring ingredients 8 000 miles from home. In the Cold Table category, teams must be innovative and serve creative, precise dishes which are judged on presentation, composition, originality, correct serving and professional preparation.

The public could view the different tables after the judges had completed their markings. What a treat! The innovation, colour and creativity on display that morning far surpassed anything I could have expected. Such intricate detail was awe inspiring. The South African theme of minerals and gem stones was simply beautiful. The painstaking effort shone above many of the other entries and compared favourably with those of some of the larger teams.

The team walked away with a Diploma for their culinary art display. Team SA were disappointed to get a Diploma after so many hours of work and preparation, they felt that they did what it took to get a medal. But, with true grit they would not allow this to affect their spirit. Now it was time to regroup and prepare for the Hot Kitchen Challenge. Time to stand together. Next up was the SA Junior team challenge of the Edible Buffet, which was a brand new competition for the 2016 Olympics. The chefs set to work in their state of the art kitchen. If you can imagine working in a fishbowl, this was it. The young team surrounded by the eager eyes of the public and the close observation of the jurors as they prepared their dishes. The team had 5 hours to complete and present a full edible buffet with hot, cold and pastry elements. Much to the delight of all, they walked away with a Bronze medal. A fantastic achievement for our young crew. The Olympics was a great opportunity for South Africa to compete against some of the world’s culinary giants. Like Sweden, Norway and eventual overall winners Singapore. Some of the international teams were able to practice for thousands of hours in preparation. Our Springboks hold down full time jobs that only allow for practices once a month. Team Captain Henrico Grobbelaar commented, “It felt like David meeting Goliath. We needed more than just talent to compete in our next challenge, the hot kitchen. We needed determination and the ability to push on and not give up” Then came the big blow to the team. Heinz Brunner and Thomas Overbeck take up the story. “We were driving to Frankfurt airport to pick up our supply of Crayfish (Rock Lobster) arriving from Australia and received a heart-breaking phone call telling us that the Crayfish had died in transit and the Vet would not release the crustaceans.” The crayfish were an irreplaceable key ingredient for the hot kitchen starter.

“When breaking the news to the team it was like telling them of a death of a family member,” said Thomas. “Now, a plan needed to be put together to find crayfish with one day before the start of the hot kitchen competition.” It seemed a near impossible task. However, they hit the phones, calling restaurants, suppliers, anyone who would listen. Eventually some lobster were located in Bonn, which was a 9 hour round trip. Heinz and Thomas set off on the autobahn (no speed limit), in an underpowered VW to collect these precious jewels. “Much to our relief, the lobsters were fresh, alive and well!” added Thomas. The two exhausted companions chatted to keep themselves awake on the long trip back to Erfurt, only to get a puncture. They were towed to a nearby town where they had to wake up a VW dealer in the middle of the nights to fit a new tyre, but eventually they arrived back in time to inform the team, at a 5AM breakfast, that all was saved.

The day dawned on the Hot Kitchen / Restaurant of Nations competition, the highlight of the Olympics. The National Culinary Team had practiced for years for this moment. They had produced the menu under competition conditions on several prior occasions, and were confident that they would win a medal. The Restaurant of Nations requires the presentation of a three-course menu for 110 members of the public, jury members are served random plates. “The support we had motivated us,” said Henrico Grobbelaar. “At times we were flagging, especially when our table collapsed and we lost 14 of our lobster starters.” But, the singing of Shosholoza and the shouts of inspiration from South African supporters pulled them through. “The most vocal of which were the contingent of Sponsors from LSC / Imperial Group. Who did not just give financial support, but the moral encouragement when we needed it the most.” Heinz Brunner commented, “The team pulled together and are an incredibly strong unit. Mentally and physically. They picked themselves up and did a fine job”. All the blood, sweat and tears paid off as Team Masakhane were proudly presented their Bronze Medals at the awards ceremony a day or so later. “A bronze was a great result,” exclaimed Heinz. “Team Masakhane are excellent ambassadors for our country and hopefully will stay together for the next Olympics in 4 years’ time. It has been an honour for this team to represent South Africa amongst the world’s top culinary nations.”