Anna Trapido catches up with South Africa’s Father of Fine Food, Dr Billy Gallagher.
Dr Billy Gallagher is South Africa’s father of fine food. Born into post-war poverty in the industrial north-east of England, he left school at fourteen and began his culinary career washing pots in the scullery of a small seaside hotel. In kitchens he found a passion and purpose that has lasted a life time. His recently published autobiography, Lettuce and a Lady’s Breast, explores the talent, tenacity, trials and tribulations that took him from the sink to a sojourn at London’s über-glamorous Dorchester Hotel and onto South African.
Long before the phrase was coined, Billy Gallagher was our first celebrity chef. The 1970s gourmet grandeur of Johannesburg’s Landdrost hotel, the shining splendor of the opening of Sun City, and a gold medal at the 1980 Frankfurt Culinary Olympics are but three of his epicurean achievements. As President of the South African Chefs Association and later of the World Association of Chefs Societies it is impossible to over-estimate his contribution to cuisine.
On 7 March 2000, Billy was hijacked, shot and rendered quadriplegic. Once again, he has risen above adversity. South Africa is on the cusp of a culinary renaissance in which Billy’s commitment to mentoring gastronomic growth has played a key role. To celebrate father’s day, Food & Home caught up with our very own big daddy of delicious dining…
Your autobiography is impressively honest. Did you enjoy writing it or was it sometimes painful?
It was a mixture of painful, pleasurable and enlightening. There were times when it was really tough but I am so glad that I did it.
Did the process of writing an autobiography change you?
Absolutely. I was carrying a whole lot of unexplored anger from my childhood. All through my childhood my father was in and out of work and my mother had two jobs just to put food on the table. By the time I was seven years old I was already working to bring in a bit of money. I am ashamed to say that I judged my dad harshly. In researching the book I learnt about his war trauma and the dangers of judging people without having all the facts.
Working at seven sounds like something out of Dickens! What jobs did you do?
First, I swept up after Mr Purvis the pork butcher. Later I worked for a fruiterer who paid me in bruised fruit. He lent me a wooden barrow which I used to sell the fruit door to door. It wasn’t all bad – at the end of the day I would get inside the barrow and race it down the hill.
So, how did you get from the go-carts into kitchens?
When I left school at 14, I felt that it was up to me to look after my family but I had failed all my exams. Coal mining was an option but I wasn’t keen. Then a friend who worked as a waiter told me that ‘there are never enough cooks because they work their arses off in smelly kitchens, lots of sweating and swearing.’ As long as the sweating and swearing took place above ground I didn’t mind. At first, I got a job cleaning not cooking but I was still so excited.
You progressed rapidly in your kitchen career. What do you think was the secret of your early success?
None of us do it alone. When I was first working in kitchens I was lucky to fall under the influence of an elderly waitress called Mary who helped me to see beyond the scullery. She introduced me to the concept of a career. I came from a world where work was a demoralising taken on and laid off existence and here was Mary showing me that as a chef I could commit to a long, stable and enjoyable life’s work.
After a year or so, Mary helped me to write the CV which got me an apprenticeship at The Royal County Hotel in Newcastle. There I met Executive Chef Jean-Herbert Rousseau who was a magnificent teacher. He taught me culinary technique but also about work ethic. He always said that ‘the more you give, give, give, the more you get, get, get’. When I had finished my apprenticeship, Chef Rousseau secured me a position at the world-famous Dorchester hotel in London.
The Dorchester was (and still is) super glamorous. Can you tell us about some of the celebrities that you cooked for?
I remember when I was very new and still quite young I was given an opportunity to cook for Richard and Madame Burton (aka Elizabeth Taylor, probably the most beautiful movie star who ever lived). Madame Burton, was apparently keen to add to her already sensational curves by putting on a little weight. She ordered a 4 egg omelet “Arnold Bennett” which sounds simple but beating eggs for the most glamorous woman of her day and her VIP husband was extremely nerve wracking. The stress nearly killed me she looked great in all her subsequent movie roles and I like to think my omelet played a small but important part in her mesmerizing radiance…
After all that glamour, what made you leave the Dorchester and come to South Africa?
I was in London for about five years. I was newly married and the plan was to come to South Africa, work a two-year contract at the Elizabeth Hotel in Port Elizabeth and then go back to England with savings.
You only meant to stay for two years – so how come you are still here?
Initially we were broke and going back to England was simply not an option – I was not earning the fabulous salary I had hoped for. It was only when S ol Kerzner bought the Elizabeth that my career started to take off. Then our children were born and PE started to feel like home. We knew we truly belonged the day we brought our baby son, Ian, home from the maternity hospital. About 100 of the hotel staff were waiting for us and immediately started to sing a welcome home song for the new arrival. Chefs, chambermaids, maintenance workers and waiters sang beautiful African voices harmonising to perfection. That was the moment that I truly fell in love with South Africa.
What advice would you give to young chefs entering the South African industry today?
The industry has changed a lot since I was an apprentice but young chefs can still benefit from the same basic advice. Kitchens are high stress, pressured spaces. People will lose their temper so don’t take it personally. There is no time for mistakes so never be afraid to ask if you don’t know. Accept that learning is not always easy – sometimes you have to put up with some trouble along the way.
Your disability has made you an inspiration, not just for those in the culinary industry… what would you say to someone feeling defeated by physical or emotional setbacks?
Everyone is different and it is okay to feel sorry for yourself. You will make progress and then hit the brick wall of depression. Try not to take it out on others – especially those dearest to you. Progress is incremental so concentrate on what you can do today that you couldn’t do yesterday. Don’t be lazy but do take help – that was the thing I found the most difficult at first. Try to find ways of using your life skills in your new circumstances – I had 38 years of experience as a chef. I had to go from being a physical chef to being an educational and managerial one. Of course I miss the heat of the stove and the bustle of the kitchen but you have to put yourself into the new world of what is.
Dr Billy Gallagher (17 August 1948 – 19 May 2016)