TakePart.com: Recipe for Change: South African Culinary School Cooks Up Better Lives

A chef’s hat, some spices and a spot at an emerging culinary school are just the tickets out of poverty that South African youth have been waiting for.

Co-founder Barry Berman and the students of Infinity Culinary Training. (Photo: Barry Berman)

Founded by Barry Berman, an American screenwriter, and Spencer Moyana, a South African cook, Infinity Culinary Training in Cape Town is dedicated to improving lives through cooking.

When Barry went to Cape Town a few years ago, he never planned to stay, nor did he expect to start a cooking school. The longer he stayed, however, the more he fell in love with the culture and became invested in the people.

While there, Barry witnessed the consequences of the apartheid government that legally seperated people by race from 1948 to 1993.

“The apartheid government had to keep people uneducated in order for the government to oppress. You can’t oppress the educated,” Barry explained in a recent interview with TakePart.

Students learning basic knife skills during their training session. (Photo: Barry Berman)

When the government fell, he said, it left millions without an education or a job.

Barry couldn’t ignore the fact that right next to rich white neighborhoods and great restaurants, townships of people were living in shacks made of paper, plastic and tin.

“They’re pressed right up against each other. There’s no indoor plumbing. Some don’t even have electricity,” Barry said. “Women go three, four, five miles and carry water back in buckets on their heads….I always thought, there’s all these restaurants and all these unemployed people.”

Then one day his friend Spencer, a South African cook, said to him, “You know, wouldn’t it be great to have a cooking school and put all these people to work?”

Barry himself loves to cook. “You know what, Spencer?” he said. “Let’s do that.”

The two scraped together funds and supplies and started the tuition-free school in 2009. At that point, Barry said, “We were flying by the seat of our pants.”

There were 10 students in the first 12-week session, and Barry and Spencer taught courses all day, everyday.

Donovan (pre-shaved head) studying with one of his fellow students. (Photo: Barry Berman)

They both understood, however, that teaching the kids was one thing; finding them jobs was another. Together they worked on setting up interviews and placing their students in restaurants. But there were challenges.

One culinary student, Donovan, had dreadlocks that he loved. After an interview with Donovan, one chef told Barry, “I’m not hiring anybody with dreadlocks; it’s just unsanitary.”

Donovan was unemployed, very poor, and had a young daughter to support, but he would not part with his hair because it was symbolic of his religion.

Barry said to him, “Look, you’ve got a family, you’ve got a daughter, you’ve got a future to think about. Just think about it.”

Donovan came in the next morning, still with dreadlocks and said, “I had a long talk with God last night and he really wants me to keep my hair. I asked all the questions I ask when I’m most in despair, and he came back with that answer.”

Barry replied, “So really what you’re saying is God wants you to keep your hair rather than raise your daughter. Do me one favor: have another conversation with God tonight and just ask different questions because if you ask the same questions, you’ll get the same answers. God is waiting for you to lead his thinking in a different way.”

Donovan went home. The next day he showed up with a shaved head and a huge smile on his face. Barry said, “I’ve never given anybody a hug in my life like I’d given this kid.”

Donovan is now employed by a fine dining restaurant and is able to support his family.

His story of poverty, however, is no anomaly in the culinary school. All of the students have come from poor backgrounds and most have experienced some form of crime. Rates of murder, robbery and assault are very high in South Africa.

One student at the school, Chandre, witnessed her sister’s murder. Chandre came to class “very tough” and with a “high-strung energy,” Barry said. She was a hard worker and Barry was able to get her to channel her energy into something positive, but only sometimes. “She’d contain it for a while but not long enough to stay employed. I don’t know where she is today,” he said.

“You lose some battles,” he said. “In this country, you cannot cry over the failures; you have to just dance over the successes.”

The school has, however, had more successes than failures. Out of the three completed sessions, nearly all students have graduated and found jobs.

Khululani Jobo became one of the school’s star pupils. (Photo: Barry Berman)

One student who embodies the Infinity Culinary Training success story is Khululani Jobo.

The second session had already begun when she emailed Barry about enrolling. He told her the training was underway and she should apply for the next session. Her answer was, “No, I need to come right now. This is my life.”

She sent her resume and Barry agreed to meet her at a cafe. After hearing her passionate plea, Barry said, “We’ll make room.”

Today Khululani is working with Garth Stroebel, a world-renowned South African chef. Her life now, she says, is “beautiful.” She called Barry crying when she got the job and said, “I thank God and I thank you.”

The school has added more teachers and is earning a name for itself in South Africa.

In the time since he and Spencer started the culinary school, Barry has learned an important lesson: “A little bit of information delivered strongly, with purpose, love and a focus on what the individual’s heart can take, goes a long way.”