The odds were stacked against 21-year-old Chef Emery Mhlokomfana but, despite the startling rate of unemployment in his Eastern Cape hometown, he’s currently working at one of the top hotels in the Western Cape. The ambitious young chef will soon be leaving the Arabella Hotel and Spa temporarily to travel to the United States and take part in the Marriott J-1 training programme. “I decided that it’s no good to do nothing and accept the situation,” says Emery Mhlokomfana, who grew up in the tiny Eastern Cape rural town of Whittlesea. “You have to open your mouth and talk to people, and then you can change things.”

We chatted to Chef Emery Mhlokomfana about his career path so far, his advice for aspiring chefs, and what he’s most looking forward to about taking part in the U.S. training programme.

Why did you decide to be a chef?

The love of food has always been running through my veins from an early age. I wanted to use my flamboyant and creative nature to fill up people’s stomachs. Cooking and being a chef has always been attractive to me and looking at the beautiful pictures of food in the magazines and on television made me even more curious.

Can you tell us about your journey to become a chef and what motivated you?

After my application to study Media Studies was not successful due to financial difficulties after passing matric, I decided to take a gap year – to regroup and find ways to continue with my high school favorite subject (Hospitality Studies) and making my dreams of becoming a Chef come true. My relocation to the Western Cape really turned out to be the best choice I have ever made in life. My intern application at Arabella Autograph Collection was successful and that was enough to get me into the field.

I have always wanted to be a qualified person with in-depth knowledge of my chosen career and I value education a great deal. I  approached my HR Manager, Melany Cooper, to discuss my future. The hotel decided to have me enrolled at the South African Chefs Academy for the Certificate and Diploma in Cooking and Diploma in Pastry. The confidence of educated people is what most motivated me and looking up to people like Gordon Ramsay, Bonang Matheba and Beyonce had me really convinced that you can truly make a living out your talent if you work hard and are dedicated.

What is it that you enjoy about the chef career?

That I can always invent new dishes and add a flair to the old ones to create something new and exciting for the taste buds. Working in an establishment like the African Pride Hotel & Spa, Arabella Autograph Collection without limitations on how far you can stretch your inventions challenges my ability and it is exciting and makes me always looking forward to go to work.

What are you most looking forward to about the Marriott training programme in the United States and how do you think it will affect your career?

Working with different cultures and traditions, learning new dishes, setting new trends and raising the South African flag even higher. I am most thrilled by the fact that the programme will help and enable me to work anywhere in the world. The exposure and the experience will also help me a lot with skills and knowledge to share with my fellows when I get back. And of course, the great impact it will have on my résumé.

Can you share some words of advice to those who want to get a job as a chef but don’t know where to start?

Do a lot of research about the field, and ask professionals so you can get the depth of information you need. If possible, get an education to help you to understand more of the science behind cooking. Dedicate yourself, be in it for it and give it all. And always remember that power is not given to you, you have to take it. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF CHANGE.

More about the Marriot J-1 Programme

The African Pride Arabella Hotel & Spa, Autograph Collection will be sending three young chefs on the Marriott J-1 Program. Soon Chef Thandolwethu Emery Mhlokomfana will leave for the program, and will be joined by two colleagues next year – they are Chefs Luzuko Mbanga and Mandla Handsome Macebo. The program takes them to Marriott’s Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in America where they will be able to learn from leading chefs in various restaurants at the resort.

The J-1 Program offers very significant guided work-based training over four phases, during which the candidate will expand his knowledge of American cooking techniques, methodologies, and technology. Each phase involves an extended period of work (from one to six months each) within a hotel kitchen, with guidance provided by a leading American chef.