The next chapter 6 December 2019 Lexington managing director Julia Edmonds on taking the helm at the boutique caterer and her people plans for the future
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A president's campaign

01 January 2000
A president's campaign

Despite living in South Africa for 25 years, Bill Gallagher, president of the World Association of Cooks Societies (WACS) and chairman of the South African Chefs Association (SACA), has not forgotten his roots. "I'm a Newcastle supporter and it breaks my heart to see Manchester United beat them at everything," he says, in the sing-song cadences of his native town.

The 49-year-old Gallagher, a life-long soccer fan, emigrated to South Africa in 1973, aged 25, after early training at Newcastle's Royal County Hotel and five years working up through the ranks in the kitchens of the Dorchester.

Now, after a quarter of a century in South Africa, working his way round the country in a number of Southern Sun Hotels - starting at the Elizabeth Hotel, Port Elizabeth, as executive sous chef - he has reached the dizzy heights of group food and development director for the company, the largest hotel group in South Africa. In his suit, sitting in an air-conditioned office in Johannesburg, with a mobile phone ringing every other minute, Gallagher looks every inch the corporate executive.

Nevertheless, he confesses to feeling more at home in chef's whites, and dons them at every available opportunity, such as for demonstrations or to cook at some special function. Many of these events are connected with either his presidency of WACS or his chairmanship of SACA, for Gallagher is a tireless promoter of his chosen career, always anxious to advance the status and profession of chefs.

This has led him to inaugurate various training drives in South Africa, the latest being Horizons 2000, which SACA has introduced into the country's schools. It's a modular educational programme with stage-by-stage certified training, starting at entry level. "The scheme gives kids a life skill so that when they leave school they have a possibility of getting a job, explains Gallagher.

"Training is a big issue here. Before the New Democratic Dispensation in 1994 [the end of apartheid], we were isolated for a long time and lost a lot of skills because many people left the country, so we're down to a reasonably fine veneer of skills. We've got a lot of willing hands, a lot of enthusiasm, but there's a hell of a lot to do on the educational side. Before I retire, I want to create a framework that will lead to quality South African cooks and destroy the perception that only expats can cook."

Rainbow cuisine

Another SACA initiative, spearheaded enthusiastically by Gallagher, is the attempt to give South African cuisine an umbrella under which to unite and market itself. Taking its cue from the famous speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in which he referred to the country as the "rainbow nation", the association has called its food style rainbow cuisine.

"We're trying to give an identity to South African ingredients," explains Gallagher. "We've got a lot of heritage here - we're quite a melting-pot culture, with every type of people and religion you can think of - and we're trying to take some of the cooking traditions together with the local ingredients and create a bit of a modern feel, similar to what's been done in places like the USA, the UK and Australia."

The cooking traditions that go into that rainbow cuisine include those derived from South Africa's many indigenous tribes, together with those originating from colonial settlers such as the Dutch and British. And then there are important influences from the Indian, Malay and Chinese settlers in the Cape.

As far as ingredients go, South Africa has an abundance of riches, although, as visiting chefs have discovered, these don't always equate exactly with their European counterparts. "Some chefs come out here and say, ‘The ingredients are not right,' and that's fair comment," says Gallagher. "But I think they should try coping with the local ingredients rather than attempt to do a menu from the UK or Europe. Imagine me asking you to find me a springbok fillet in Northampton. You're not going to be able to do that.

"We've got beautiful vegetables, fabulous fruit, great wine and lovely game, like springbok, kudu and wildebeast. You can get local varieties of guinea fowl and quail, and there's also ostrich, which is a lovely meat, free of cholesterol. As for fish, we have a wonderful selection including kingklip and our Cape crayfish, which is renowned all over the world."

Culinary inheritance

Gallagher points to a dish of ostrich with gooseberries, shredded maize cràpes, pumpkin fritters and wild spinach as a fusion of South Africa's culinary inheritances. He says: "Wild spinach is very much African, Cape gooseberries are very much Cape Malay, the ostrich meat is from the western Cape, and then you've got pumpkin fritters which are used in both British and Dutch colonial cuisine."

During his years in South Africa, Gallagher has represented his adopted country in many international competitions, amassing a host of medals and trophies, but he rates competing in the culinary olympics four times high on his list of achievements. And so, to be voted in for a four-year term of office as president of WACS, the organisation that oversees the running of the olympics, is an accolade of which he is justifiably proud.

During his tenure, which began in 1996, Gallagher has to write a monthly newsletter, promote the organisation and its training and competition guidelines worldwide, and arrange scholarship schemes and students exchanges. All this is in addition to the responsibilities of his full-time job with Southern Sun and his work as SACA chairman. "Being president is rewarding, very challenging - but it would have been lovely if I'd been semi-retired," he admits with a smile.

His project of the moment with WACS is to get a computer translation program on the Internet fully operational. The Globalink Power Translator has been developed by IBM and enables users to download a piece of text (such as a letter) in one language, send it on e-mail to a foreign country and have it automatically translated into the recipient's language. At the moment, it is accessible only through the continental directors' offices.

Language translations

"This is aimed at the young chef who can't speak English or German, but who may be looking for a job in an English- or German-speaking country," says Gallagher. "It's a major step forward. At the moment we have four languages that can be translated - English, German, French, Spanish - but we anticipate that in 10 years' time we'll have another two: a Chinese dialect and maybe one of the Slovak languages."

Gallagher is due to step down from his WACS presidency at its next congress in Maastrict in 2000, but by then he hopes to have increased its membership from 60 to 75 national associations.

As for leisure time, he says: "I used to box for a while in the early days - I've got a boxer's neck (I can't stick it out too far!) - and I played soccer for a long time. But I'm more of a spectator these days. Being a chef has been my hobby and my career. Workaholic - that's me."

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