Chef Denbeigh van der Merwe is preparing a sauce for her signature salted caramel cheesecake when I arrive at Grill Jichana, located at Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani hotel on the Durban promenade.
Dressed in her black chef’s outfit, she ushers me to a table overlooking a street where she takes a seat next to me. Since becoming a chef, Van der Merwe has prepared meals for hotel guests from all across the globe. The 37-year-old started her career at Alpine Heath Resort in the Drakensberg in the early 2000s where she created delightful buffet spreads and later honed her fine dining skills at the Ballito Manor, north of Durban (the hotel has since closed).
She currently is the executive sous chef at the Grill Jichana and Vigour and Verve at Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani hotel. She fell in love with food as a young girl of six, baking with her mother at their Pietermaritzburg home. Her passion for cooking grew when she took home economic classes during her high school years.
“Pursuing a career as a chef did not appeal to me at first. It was more a passion for me and gave me a chance to spend time with my mother in the kitchen. I only realised that I could pursue this as a career when my aunt noticed an advert in the paper about an opportunity at the International Hotel School in 1999. I applied and never looked back,” she says excitedly.
It is easy to see that Van der Merwe loves her staff and guests. Although the restaurant is not busy this afternoon, she and her team are busy prepping for the night’s service. “It is all about guests and making sure they leave happy and satisfied. I have an amazing team and want to be there for them.”
Days for Van der Merwe are quite flexible. Her typical day includes frequent checks with her team, tending to orders and supply needs and to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
When she isn’t cooking up a storm, she enjoys lazing on the couch with a chilled glass of wine and her favourite Netflix show. Or, believe it or not, heads to dinner with her husband at a relaxing restaurant.
Working in a “male-dominated industry” has pushed her to work harder. She says: "It’s very tough to climb the ladder when you are a female. Women are overlooked and have to work extra hard to be successful. It’s great to see females breaking boundaries.”
Like most chefs, she aspires to open a restaurant one day.
“I would love to run my own restaurant one day. That is a dream that requires a lot of hard work and money. I am also one of those people who live for each day. For now, I am happy where I am.”
The Durban chef’s advice to people who want to enter the “exciting industry” is to be prepared to make sacrifices.
“It’s an exciting industry, especially since food changes all the time. You get to meet different people and form a great relationship with regular guests.
“Being a chef at a hotel is also a demanding job, and you will need to be willing to make sacrifices. Many people have the perception that cooking is as easy as what they see in reality shows.
“Chefs thrive on working as a team. Everyone has a specific role to play and is an important part of the puzzle,” she says.