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Accommodation Food/Wine

Meet the Cradle Boutique Hotel’s new chef who started life as a mechanical engineer

The Cradle Boutique Hotel – located in the spectacular 9 000 hectare Greater Cradle Nature Reserve in the Cradle of Humankind which was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1999 – is a unique ecotourism destination, situated within a reserve that is home to two active paleoanthropological sites. Recipient of a 2022 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award, the hotel consists of 31 upmarket hotel rooms. Twenty four of the rooms are eco-friendly, sustainably built with timber and thatch, raised on stilts to reduce their environmental impact as well as six sky rooms with wood burning hot tubs positioned on the hillside and finally, the luxurious owner’s suite. There is also a luxury tented camp on the property. The 220-seater Cradle Restaurant, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, boasts a wide veranda which provides diners with a 180° view of the game-filled valley and uninterrupted views of the Highveld landscape. There are three conference venues on the property as well as the world renowned Malapa Museum. Hotel guests and day visitors can book private guided safaris to two major fossil exploration sites as well as guided game drives and game walks. All profits from the Cradle Boutique Hotel are poured back into conservation, education and the protection of the Cradle  Foundation. The property is a 10 minute drive from Lanseria International Airport and close to Sandton.

Sam Ramokoka – the new executive chef at the Cradle Boutique Hotel in the Cradle of Humankind – has a booming voice and a hearty laugh; both important ingredients for a kitchen, he says.
He needs to be heard above the clamour of boiling pots and sizzling pans when he barks out instructions, always tempered with a laugh that is as rich as his luscious oxtail.
He’s come a long way since he quit studying mechanical engineering at Vaal University of Technology because he “didn’t like it”. His Kagiso, Krugersdorp parents – who are now retired and live in Brits – were not pleased. But he was determined and unstoppable.
Ramokoka’s cooking journey began with helping his mother who worked for a scripture union campsite where she made simple meals like soup and mac and cheese.

“I loved helping her and knew early on that food was my future,” he says.
His journey began 16 years ago, as a sculler in the Mount Grace Hotel kitchen.
Within six months the chef had promoted him to commis assistant chef*.
A commis* is a basic chef in larger kitchens who works under a chef de partie to learn the station’s or range’s responsibilities and operations. This may be a chef who has recently completed formal culinary training or is still undergoing training
“I had to do all the jobs the chefs didn’t like. But I was curious. I wanted to know more  and I asked questions. I ended up standing in front of guests frying eggs and making omelettes. That’s when I realised that this is what I want to do in life and knew I needed the right qualifications.”

He enrolled with Mafikeng Hotel School despite being refused help by his (then) unsupportive parents. (They have come around he says and are proud of his considerable achievements.)
He needed R7 000 for registration and received it from his hotel employers, to whom he returned after three years of training.
Two years later Mount Grace head chef Trever Boyd – whom Sam names as one of his mentors – moved to Franschhoek in the Cape and invited the young commis join him as chef de partie*.
A chef de partie*, station chef, or line cook is a chef in charge of a particular area of production in a restaurant.
“I’d never been to Cape Town but I was willing to give it a try. All the magazines I read led me to believe Cape Town, with its wine farms and fine restaurants, was a place where I could learn.”

 And his favourite celebrity chef, Reuben Riffel – he has huge respect for the man, his food, and his achievements – was there.
“At Le Franschhoek Hotel, Trevor Boyd gave me the opportunity to grow myself. In two years, I was promoted to junior sous chef*. I was climbing the ladder quickly.”
Junior sous chefs* are second-in-command under the head chef and have run of the kitchen when the head chef isn’t available. They’re tasked with watching over cooks while they prepare meals according to recipes. Junior sous chefs may also have a hand in planning the menu and deciding on the price of dishes
At a chef’s forum, Ramokoka met Chef Franc Lubbe, the newly appointed chef at Mount Grace who told him an a la carte restaurant, the Rambling Vine, was opening at the hotel and that he had the skills to run it.
“He organised a cook-off I had to do for the GM and was hired as senior sous chef at Rambling Vine. It was a big challenge. The restaurant was new; I had to come up with a new menu and train the staff. I’d come from a junior position and now had to manage people – some older than me. I had to find a way to communicate where I was firm without being rude.”
He is hugely proud of how well the restaurant did during his tenure, staying in the top five on Eat Out for four years.
From there, he was appointed as executive sous chef at Mount Grace, then moved on to Protea Hotel Manor as executive chef. Within 12 years, the young man – now 43 – went from sculler to executive chef. It was a meteoric rise.
Ramokoka loves his new job. “Look around you,” he gestures to the vista from the Cradle Boutique Hotel restaurant balcony that takes in a languorous morning with a loping giraffe in the distance and a dazzle of grazing zebra.
“The Cradle is a very beautiful place to work. We take our ecotourism status very seriously. I leave Midrand in terrible traffic – and by the time I turn into this property, my breathing has slowed and I am calmer, happier.”
His tone is philosophical: “I’ve worked in places where life is too busy, where you can’t really be yourself. In cities and towns, people treat food differently. The Cradle gives me an opportunity to create homely food that people enjoy. I get to meet the clients, to talk to them. To understand what they want.

“Our menu lets you know and feel where you are – in the place where humankind began. We honour this by sourcing as much of our produce locally; we grow our own tomatoes and lettuce; we make our own bread; our oxtail is cooked with love.”
He reveals the five things that you will always find in his pantry: salt, flour, rosemary thyme and garlic.
“You can’t start a meal without those,” he says, adding that his death row meal would be the tripe and samp that his mother makes.
“I’ve tried to make it, doing exactly what she tells me to do, but it never comes out the way she makes it.”
Ramokoka says he eats everything but laughs as he tells a story of how he came to eat something he never thought he would: Mopani worms.
“Everyone was eating them and I could not be rude in my friend’s parents’ house, so I tried one. You know when your tongue goes watery? Well, I knew that people were looking at me. I had to pretend that I thought it was very nice. To be honest, once you get past the fact that you’re eating worms, it’s fine!”
Ramokoka says chefs have to be cognisant of the fact that modern diners are making healthy choices and that they need to consider healthy options when creating a menu. He says most days, during service, he is asked to cook without oil or carbs
“Also, people are busy with time constraints. They want easy healthy cooking.”
Ramokoka describes himself as a family person. He and his wife Motshepo – an assistant food and beverage manager at Mount Grace Hotel where they met – have three children: daughter Kathlego, 14, son Neo, 10 and baby girl, Wandile, two who is the apple of her father’s eye.
“We’ve been married 17 years but knew each other for six years before we married. Juggling our schedules is hard, but we make it happen. My children lived with my parents for a few years until I realised I was missing out on so much of their childhood. They now live with us, and we work around them.”
Sam ends saying: “I love my family. I love what I do. I love being here – where humankind began. I am a lucky man!”

He shares his mother’s tripe stew recipe.
Mogodu beef tripe x1kg
Onion chopped x 120g
Turmeric x 10g
Garlic x 20g
Beef stock x 2 teaspoon
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the tripe for 45m
Allow to simmer for another 45m and add the spices and onions
Allow to thicken then serve

The Cradle Boutique Hotel restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday to Sunday. Bookings on +27 87 353 9599
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Issued on behalf of The Cradle Boutique Hotel by Charmain Naidoo on 083 999 7000. Images courtesy of The Cradle Boutique Hotel.



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