Sugar, Pastry and a Touch of Perfection

There is something magical about the smell of something baking wafting through a home that makes one smile. And, there is something utterly glorious about confections of any kind: cupcakes, mousses, tarts…you name it: if it’s sweet, it makes you happy. It is no surprise then, that the trio of ladies who keep the Fig Tree’s kitchen sweet are absolute sweethearts! Meet our Pastry Chefs: Katy, Philile and Betty.

When we arrive in the kitchen for the photo shoot, the pastry section is neat as a pin. Little bowls of interesting things line the work surface: glitter, flowers, tiny pops of meringue. Chef Philile Dlamini is finishing up the preparations, and she smiles at Chef Katy Mahomed, who is checking whether her custard is the right consistency. Chef Betty Dube flits by, with a jaunty leopard print cap under her hair net. The ladies have a quiet, determined rhythm about them.

“It’s a funny story, actually,” Philile grins when asked why she decided to become a pastry chef. “I didn’t decide. I was chosen.” Philile was working in the hot section at Hilton Hotel when she was asked to assist in the pastry section. “The head chef said I was always running around, so I’d be quick, and I had cold hands: that’s needed to work with pastry. They shoved me in, and told me follow the recipe!” And, she was hooked: so hooked that she now feels ‘awkward’ when she ventures near the hot section. “I’m scared of the grill!”

Her earliest memories of cooking are with her grandmother, who would summon her to the kitchen from her playtime with the boys in the neighbourhood. “She would ask me how I was going to get married if I didn’t know how to cook.” Now a Capsicum graduate, Philile finds the purest joy in pastry, and is known as the cheesecake and macaron queen in the kitchen.

Betty, who has been with Simbithi for 13 years, smiles as Philile and Katy call her the bread master. The shy, quiet chef started out as a cleaner in the days when the Club was in the space that now houses the Gymnasium. “When we moved down to the new Clubhouse, I was moved to the scullery.” After noticing her potential, former Executive Chef Gerard van Staden asked Betty if she wanted to be a chef. “I said yes, and he started teaching me in the cold section. After a while, he asked if I wanted to move to pastry. I was nervous, but I decided to give it a try.” Betty has progressed, and now forms a third of the pastry team. She has taught Philile and a few other chefs to bake bread. She is also the chef behind Simbithi’s famous, very popular Chocolate Mousse Cake! “I love baking,” her eyes light up. “And, I am so happy to work with pastry every day.”

For Katy, life has taken a few interesting turns: she almost ended up in the operating theatre instead of the kitchen. “My path was set out for medical school, but that didn’t work out. It was a tough period in my life, and I needed to find something I was passionate about.” The young woman who once ‘hated baking’, discovered an affinity for baking. “And, I was good at it. I fit the profile of a pastry chef perfectly: temperamental with a touch of OCD. The kitchen was where I found myself, again…I could just be me.” Katy headed straight for the pastry course at Capsicum, and completed the rest of her qualifications, recently. She joins Simbithi after a six-month practical period in the kitchen. “Philile, Betty and I are equally passionate about pastry, and we are having fun experimenting with techniques and flavours.”

The chefs cheerfully admit to being diehard perfectionists. This, Philile says, is normal for the pastry section. “There’s a reason it’s the craziest section in any kitchen! If we don’t get something right, we throw tantrums,” she laughs. Katy adds that, because baking is an exact science, the pastry team does not take shortcuts. “No such thing as tweaking until it comes right,” she winks. “Pastry is tough, because there’s always an unspoken expectation from guests when they hear dessert. So, we do not compromise on sending out perfection on every plate.”

And, what are their favourite desserts? Each chef answers without hesitation: Philile, cheesecake; Betty, chocolate mousse and Katy, a classic crème brulee. “I’m old school!” she says.

The cherry on top, for the ladies, is summed up by Philile’s words: “baking is all about love. I want to hear a guest say ‘I don’t know what was in that…but it was nice!’”