• The alchemy of Big Five and Big Dinners is a winner for Dumi Ndlovu.

    Richard Holmes

    &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve, call 011-809-4300 or visit www.andbeyond.com

    Ngala Private Game Reserve is lush and green after heavy summer rains, and a brace of leafy bush willow and tamboti trees throw a blanket of shade over the deck where Dumi Ndlovu and I settle into canvas camp chairs. On the grass behind Dumi the selfappointed lawnmowers of Ngala Safari Lodge are hard at work. Knees bent and beady eyes wary, this family of warthogs trade their grass-trimming skills for a few hours away from toothy predators.

    The bushveld is buzzing, but there’s an unhurried feel to the lodge that Dumi Ndlovu calls home. With its rolling lawns, homestead feel and lines of irresistible chaises longues, it’s a laid-back, soporific place. On the edge of the nearby waterhole only two discreet wires, electrified to keep the elephants out, are a reminder that this is a Big Five wilderness.

    But although we’re miles from civilisation, in the middle of Lowveld bush, the guests at Ngala Safari Lodge (and the dozens of other wilderness lodges &Beyond operate across southern Africa) are expecting a slap-up meal three times a day. Four, if you count the high tea that is spread out before the afternoon game drive. And making sure what appears on their plate is perfect, every day of the year, is Dumi’s job. I’m amazed he looks so relaxed.

    It’s a world far removed from waiting tables at Londolozi, Dumi’s first position in the hospitality industry. After “falling in love with food at Londo” it was countless hours working his way up the kitchen ranks – under the watchful eye of mentors like Yvonne Short – that saw Dumi take over as head chef at Ngala more than a decade ago.

    Today, as group training chef for &Beyond, Dumi spends much of his year travelling between lodges scattered from Mpumalanga to Zululand and Namibia: teaching chefs, updating menus, fixing problems and ensuring guests aren’t going hungry. “I move between the lodges to check the chefs are following the recipes and menus properly, but also to add new elements to them,” says Dumi.

    “I sit down with the chef at each lodge and we discuss ideas for improvements. It’s very important to have absolute buy-in from the chefs.” While each lodge operates on a sevenday menu cycle, to allow for planning and provisioning, the menus also change with each season, says Dumi. “In winter we go back to the shanks and potjies. I chose the recipe for springbok shanks because it is such a wonderful meat for winter.

    “In summer we stick with loins and fillets, and salsa instead of sauces. Some of the dishes, like fillet, are popular throughout the year, but the details change with each season. So instead of roasted Mediterranean vegetables, we might turn it into a vegetable potjie; it’s the same idea, but a little different.” As well as following the seasons, Dumi also works with local chefs at each lodge to tap into the produce typical of the area. “The ingredients on our menus are always local to that particular region.

    Here in the Lowveld we make sure there is lots of citrus, mangoes and marula fruit on the plate. Go to Zululand and you’re going to get lots of pineapples. We grow plenty of pumpkins in the Lowveld too, so the pumpkin bread and butter pudding is a popular dessert for us, and it’s perfect for winter,” says Dumi. “We also like to give guests something they might never have tasted before.” While Dumi and his team of lodge chefs like to introduce guests to local produce, simplicity is key for cooking in the bush, he says. “All of the individual lodge chefs bring their own influences and ideas, but they have to fit into our &Beyond style of cooking. We don’t do any piping or transforming vegetables.

    If it’s a baby marrow you must be able to see that it’s a baby marrow, and if it’s beef it must taste like beef. We don’t want to confuse people with their dinner. We like to keep it simple and make sure the flavour and texture are good.” At many lodges, local ingredients can also mean produce grown just a few steps from the kitchen door, with the staff garden producing a range of fresh herbs and vegetables.

    “Whatever we can grow here we do. The staff run their own small gardens in their spare time and sell the produce back to the lodge. It’s obviously seasonal, so in winter the spinach and onions will be coming out. The only problem is that we have to fight with the baboons all the time, but we normally have enough to share!” laughs Dumi. As the warthogs continue their alfresco lunch of fresh greens, I wonder whether the likes of impala, kudu and warthog can happily be both tourist attraction and a main course. “Some guests feel very ashamed about having impala or warthog as a meat for dinner,” chuckles Dumi in agreement. “But we do explain to them that all of our meat is bought in from outside farms, and that it’s not hunted on the reserves.

    “Most guests are adventurous and like to try out new meats, but we always have a safety option too. So if we do impala we’ll also put chicken on the menu, or perhaps fish, to make sure there’s a balance, because you have to keep everyone happy when they’re on holiday.” Although Dumi spends long stretches travelling between lodges, when he’s ‘back home’ at Ngala he’s never far from the kitchen. “I still like to get involved in the kitchen at Ngala,” smiles Dumi. “I know how to work at each station, of course, but I really love the hot section, doing the meats and sauces.”

    Love is a word that comes up often when chatting to Dumi, and it’s clear that this is a chef who sees the kitchen as a calling, not simply a career. “The secret to anything that you cook is to cook it with love and with passion. You can’t just throw things in the pot and hope for the best. I can give you the recipe, but without passion it won’t be the same. So you should only cook a dish if you really want to cook it. Whatever it is, you must make it with love for it to taste good.”

    As Dumi heads off to prepare a spread of sundowner snacks for a few American tourists, I notice a message on the back of his chef’s jacket that sums up everything he’s talked about in our hour under the tamboti trees: ‘I am the magic ingredient’.

    Situated an hour from Hoedspruit, in the 14 000-hectare Ngala Private Game Reserve, Ngala Safari Lodge is one of the older camps in the &Beyond portfolio. The relaxed pace, helpful staff and excellent game viewing have made it one of the most popular lodges in the private reserves bordering Kruger National Park. It’s the kind of place where you could put your feet up on the coffee table and nobody would bat an eyelid.

    Click on the recipes below for ingredients:
    Roasted carrot and herb dumpling soup
    Springbok shanks with dates
    Pumpkin bread and butter pudding

    Bruce Tuck