My name is Phakamisa Kolisi, originally from Port Elizabeth I grew up in Soweto-on-Sea. I’m a qualified chef from Umzi Wethu. I now have 15 year’s experience and 4 cooking awards. I love cooking and I am the owner of Phaka restaurant.
How did you hear about Wilderness Foundation Africa and when was this?
It was 2007. I heard from the organisation Hope Worldwide who were giving groceries to the poor in Soweto-on-Sea. So I heard there’s this free 1-year course and if you are passionate or interested in cooking you can join the course. So I was recruited by Hope Worldwide and went to the interviews and then the trails. After the trails it was the selection process and they selected me to be part of Umzi Wethu.
Can you tell us a bit about your life before you started with WFA?
So I started at Phakamisa High School where I was playing soccer and doing drama and traditional dance. I grew up wanting to be an actor but I heard about the opportunity of Umzi Wethu and so I went there. I was raised by my grandmother but not my biological grandmother. She adopted me and raised me. It was me and my younger brother.
What was your time at WFA like and how was the training you received?
My time at WFA was fantastic, it was the best time ever. It was lifechanging because we also learned about life skills. We were staying in the res at the time so you learned your duties, how to live with other people, communication, teamwork. We had housemothers who gave us tasks and we would rotate. It taught me a lot of responsibility. I enjoyed the Green Leaf café the most, where we would do our practicals – serving guests directly.
Can you tell us a bit about Phaka.
So it was COVID and all the restaurants and hotels were closed. I was working at Radisson Blu at the time. AAfter they closed the guests who used to go to Radisson and look for me asked me to start cooking for them in their houses. So when I cooked in their houses, this thing developed. When Radisson called me to come back I was already winning this side. I had to choose and I chose the private cooking. It was a risk because it was COVID and I may not have been able to get another job, but I took the risk. I continued as a private chef and then I heard that the boardwalk development was looking for a fine dining restaurant. They approached me and showed me the space. I then applied for funding but didn’t get the funding. So I started my own company, a small business.
I was operating as Phaka as a private chef – Phaka means to dish. I was happy as a private chef because I was earning more money than I was before. The biggest challenge was getting funding to open a restaurant. While I was a private chef I used to cook at Windemere Hotel for people’s birthdays. There wasn’t really a restaurant or kitchen here. So I asked the manager why the space isn’t being utilised. The owners said they weren’t ready to open a restaurant so I asked to rent the space. I had to write a formal proposal and then we formed an agreement. I had to hustle and borrow to buy crockery, placemats etc. However, thanks to a kind donation from someone I used to work for, I was able to purchase everything I needed to open my restaurant.
How did your training at WFA help you?
The trails played a big role in helping me. You are on your own in the bush. Sometimes Ntobeko [the WFA trails guide] was walking far ahead and we had to catch up. We had to cook for ourselves in the bush without proper equipment. You have to survive, and do the night watch alone in the dark. They built us and made us strong to overcome any challenges we had.
What advice would you give to young people, especially students at WFA?
The advice I would give to young people is to focus. There are a lot of things which look nice on the outside but will prevent you from reaching your goals. You need to check what is going to stop you from reaching your goal and what is going to help. Stick to that goal. That is what challenging our youth at the moment. Maybe you spend more time on social media and focusing on other people’s lives than working towards your goal. I’m the guy buying recipe books, not partying. That’s why my slogan is ‘it’s easy to be a chef, it’s not easy to become a great cook’. You have to invest time and your mind. You need to keep up with the cooking trends and keep improving. I always want to be better. How am I going to make my customers come back? White plates aren’t trending anymore! If you focus on your goal you can achieve it.
What is your plan for the future?
My plan is to make a name for Phaka. At the moment I am happy with the space, with the size. Fine dining is not fast food. I don’t need 50 or 80 people. You’re going to lose the attention to detail. I’m focusing on improving my service. Because I didn’t get the funding I couldn’t get everything I wanted. So each month I am buying something small, like new glasses that are trending. I’m focusing on saving money so I can pay salaries etc. Maybe when I’ve saved enough money I can open my own space with everything I need.
Umzi Wethu is an accredited vocational training programme which prepares youth for positions in the conservation and hospitality industries.