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Around the world one plate at a time | News

From crazy cooking inventions for her apprehensive family back in Kokstad to serving world-class cuisine to World Championship Formula One drivers in Monaco, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, Justine Lindsay, 30, can confidently say she has excelled in her chosen profession.

“I always had an interest in food from very young and by Grade 10 I had started researching where I wanted to study,” said the uMhlanga resident.

After matriculating from St John’s DSG in Pietermaritzburg, Justine headed to Stellenbosch where she studied classical French cuisine at the Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) for two years under top South African chefs including ICA founder, Letitia Prinsloo, and celebrity chef, Peter Goffe-Wood.

“I chose ICA because they have a more modern take on food, they’ve kept up with the times,” she said.

After a short stint at Shamwari Game Reserve, Justine headed to London where she worked as a freelance chef with a big catering company, Rhubarb.

But the company she ultimately wanted to work for was the family-run catering organisation, Rocket Food Limited.

“I called them and was invited for an interview. They liked my personality so, after a two-day trial, I started. I really just hit it right with them.”

Under careful tutelage with the organisation, Justine’s skills quickly developed, catering for elite contracts including Burberry, Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, CNN, Playboy, Top Shop and even the Royal Family.

She worked with leading international chefs such as Albert Roux, Yotam Ottolenghi and protegees of Gordon Ramsay, Angela Hartnett and Anna Haugh. Haugh is currently the head chef at Ramsay’s newest restaurant, London House.

Justine was also sent out on “stages”, whereby she selected a restaurant and worked in the kitchen for a two-week experience.

“One of the most memorable experiences was working at The Cinnamon Club, a well-known Indian restaurant. That’s something I never thought would happen. Me, a French cuisine-trained chef, making Indian dishes, but it was amazing.”

Justine was promoted to senior sous-chef, which meant a lot more creative freedom with a lot more responsibility.

“The pressure was immense. It’s long hours, 80 hours a week, sometimes working 18 days straight, but I’m passionate about learning and you need to put in the work if you want to get the rewards. In seven years I took one sick day because there’s just no time.”

Rocket caters for the Formula One team, Mercedes AMG Petronas and, in 2011, Justine was given an unbelievable career opportunity.

“I was offered the job as head chef working for the Formula One team. I’m a massive Formula One fan so I jumped at the chance.”

However, strict confidentiality agreements bar her from disclosing the names of the drivers she cooked for.

When she began the rigorous job of heading the Mercedes F1 kitchen, she interacted with top international drivers on the circuit.

“Meeting them was the most amazing thing. Because their diets are so important you interact with them a lot, but you’re a colleague so there is mutual respect.”

One of the internationally-renowned drivers Justine met had been racing for a number of years by then and his experience made him very precise about his diet.

“His favourite dish is Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, and his pasta had to be cooked for exactly six-and-a-half minutes. He knew what he wanted, but he was very polite.”

During her time with the Mercedes team, Justine travelled constantly to about 20 of the most stunning venues every year, all the time doing what she loved. In that time, she recalls only one cooking-related problem.

“One of the driver’s favourite meals is avocado pasta and, on one occasion, I put too much garlic in the sauce. These drivers are under immense pressure, driving insane speeds in a hot, confined environment and all this guy could smell was garlic. He radioed his manager to say there was too much garlic! I was so stressed, but luckily it was only a practice race so it was a big laugh at the end of the day.”

In May last year, after seven years with Rocket, Justine returned home. She has since been hired as a private chef for a current Formula One driver for whom she works during the off-season.

This job allowed Justine to pursue another career opportunity in November last year, which saw her heading to Antarctica.

“I took over a chef position from a friend who went on maternity leave. They needed someone who is well-travelled and can work under unusual circumstances.”

During the Antarctic summer season, Justine worked with the team from White Desert, an exclusive tour operator group that flies tourists into Antarctica. Guests pay thousands of euros for these luxury trips and so the team has to ensure everything is available to suit every need.

“We fly into Antarctica on The Illusion and when you get off the plane your breath is literally taken away by the -20 degree temperatures and 40 knot winds but it’s the complete whiteness that is such a shock. It is just so beautiful.”

From the “airstrip” the team heads into Antarctica where they spend two weeks building the accommodation pods and preparing for the first guests.

“It’s hard work in a difficult environment and everything is made more difficult by the cold. You go days without showering because it’s just too much effort. But the people you meet – from Saudi royals to ice-climbing champions – are amazing.”

Justine will return to Antarctica later this year while continuing to work as an international private chef. And in her down time she will be eating out at old favourites such as Little Havana, and the recently opened Old Town Italy in uMhlanga.

- Published in Independent Newspapers on 19 June 2015.

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