Travel is as much about a destination as it is the people you meet. Everyone has a story to tell and taking the time to personally engage with these often-entertaining, often-humbling characters will only enrich the travel experience.
This certainly rang true during a recent stay at &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp in South Africa’s prestigious Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Not only did the late hunter-turned-conservationist, Harry Kirkman, leave an indelible mark on the (Sabi) sands of time, but after spending time getting to know executive chef Lulama Magatya, I discovered that he, too, is leaving his own enduring mark in the sand.
It all starts at home
Cape Town-born Lulama Magatya was raised and inspired by his grandmother. “I was very close with her,” he smiles. “I would say I was her favourite, because wherever she was, I was right there, asking questions.”
Growing up in the Magatya household, Lulama recalls festive family gatherings and how he would help his grandmother with the cooking and baking. Their quality time in the kitchen instilled in Lulama an unwavering passion for food, yet he still believed, back then, that he would pursue a career as an auditor. Thankfully his love of numbers was far outweighed by his obvious love of cooking.
An early mentor
Cooking was put on the backburner, so to speak, as Lulama set his sights on hotel management. Upon completing his training, he applied to work on the casino floor of a renowned hotel, but the interviewer suggested he should consider becoming a chef.
Taking this advice to heart, Lulama took on his first role in the professional kitchen in 2000 as a junior sous chef under the guidance and mentorship of an executive chef that took Lulama under his wing. “One thing he always told me was to just go for it,” Lulama recalls. “He said that if an opportunity ever presented itself or a door opened for me, that I shouldn’t hold myself back.”
Out into the world
Two years later and armed with new culinary skills, Lulama was ready to ‘go for it’ and applied to work on an international cruise line. At the age of 23 and having never left South Africa, Lulama bravely ventured overseas, by himself, to bustling Miami of all places.
“I was quite anxious, all by myself, not knowing what to expect,” he admits. But his bold move was rewarded and Lulama earned himself a position as a trainee cook aboard a glamorous cruise ship.
“It was either make it or break it,” he explains. “When you’re a trainee, you have to stick to what you’re doing. I could see the senior chefs cooking and I kept thinking, ‘I could do that.’ But it wasn’t my time. As a trainee, if you have to peel, you have to peel. So I started to absorb as much as I could.”
And so began Lulama’s countless adventures (literally) across the entire globe, rubbing shoulders with and learning all he possibly could from formidable chefs around the world.
Bitten by the travel bug
Armed with a well-stamped passport, world-class skills, and an endless eagerness to keep learning, Lulama eventually decided to return to his roots in South Africa. As chance would have it, the now-famous Roundhouse restaurant in Cape Town’s sought-after Camp’s Bay was set to open and Lulama proudly formed part of the opening team.
After six months, that voracious travel bug bit yet again. Lulama set off, this time to Europe, to work aboard a smaller, more exclusive cruise line renowned for being a world leader in culinary and destination-focused cruises. Here, he learned the meticulous art of plating and presentation.
Four years later, Lulama’s culinary quest for knowledge took him to Saudi Arabia to help create and launch a new four-storey fine dining restaurant. For two years, he worked under Alexandre Geffroy, three-Michelin-starred chef and personal chef to Roman Abramovitch of Chelsea football club fame.
Bidding farewell to Saudi Arabia, Lulama’s illustrious career as a chef then took him to the luxurious atolls of the Maldives for three years, then further north to Scandinavia, and to many other countries in between. However, his African roots eventually started calling and Lulama finally journeyed back to his homeland South Africa, this time for good.
The &Beyond ethos was in line with what I was looking for.
Home is where the heart is
Perhaps it was happenstance, or pure destiny, but when Lulama learned that a head chef position had opened at &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp in 2017, he once again decided to ‘just go for it’.
“The &Beyond ethos was in line with what I was looking for,” Lulama admits. “But it was a different ballgame at first. The kitchen wasn’t of the size or standard I was used to overseas, but I was determined to make it work. I was given a three-month probation period to prove myself. ‘Give me a month,’ I told them.”
A wealth of worldly experience
From humble beginnings, Lulama has travelled the world extensively to perfect his craft. He now speaks an impressive 6 languages and has visited more than 55 countries. From Saudi Arabia and Santorini to Malta and the Maldives (and pretty much everywhere in between), Lulama has been exposed to different cuisines, cultures, languages, techniques, plating and presentation.
He has covered all stations in gourmet kitchens around the world (saucière, poissonnier, rôtisseur, entremetier, potager, pâtissier, you name it) and has gleaned personal insight from highly respected Michelin star chefs, including Jacques Pépin, Eric Barale, Alexandre Geffroy and Franck Garanger (Maître Cuisinier de France).
His extensive and meticulously in-depth experience in worldly cuisines (French bistro, Pan Asian, Chinese, Cantonese, Italian, Thai, Japanese and South African, to name a few) brings a wealth of surprising flavour to every dish Lulama lovingly creates.
“When I look back to where I came from, to where I am now,” Lulama confesses, “I think, wow, it was worth it.”
A curious mind
Throughout Lulama’s 21 years as an inquisitive chef, he has always had an insatiable desire to delve deeper and learn as much as possible. “The way the French chefs would combine the ingredients to come up with their final presentation was amazing,” he recalls. “I became more and more interested in the science of food, and I started to dig deeper and do my own research into molecular gastronomy.”
“Some people said I was taking it too far,” he laughs. “Well, if that’s the case, why not? At least I will learn exactly what is going on with the food and why. It has given me an edge in the kitchen.”
This is something that is close to my heart.
“This is something that is close to my heart,” Lulama explains. “I can see that my chef team is willing to learn and take their skillsets to another level. Through our lessons, I can teach them about preparation, temperatures, techniques, plating, cleanliness, hygiene, proper fridge and freezer storage … all of those small details that I have learned along the way.”
And despite Tswana being Lulama’s mother tongue, he presents each module, first in English, then in Zulu and Shangaan, to ensure everyone gains full understanding. “It has already had a huge impact in our kitchens,” he reveals.
When I step out in the morning, I’m just looking forward to getting into the kitchen.
Lead with heart
Despite his worldly adventures and hard-earned accreditations, Lulama has no airs or graces. He is humble, kind and unassuming and his can-do attitude never falters. “Every day is a new day,” he beams. “When I step out in the morning, I’m just looking forward to getting into the kitchen.”
Self-motivated and ever-calm under pressure, Lulama reveals that he doesn’t see stress, he only sees solutions. This strong, always-positive mindset has undoubtedly helped him to get where he is today.
Lulama is an avid reader of all things food and he is equally passionate about sharing this well-researched knowledge. He will always take the time to explain the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ to ensure his kitchens operate effectively, efficiently, and most importantly, with genuine passion.
When asked if he had any parting words or advice for those just starting out, be it in the food industry or not, Lulama’s response was simple: “Make sure you put your heart into it. Just find it, find your purpose. It will take you places.”
SEE WHAT LIES BEYOND
Leave the diet at home and come experience the culinary magic and expertise of Chef Lulama and his team.