Sandisile Sonka was only 15 when his mother passed away, leaving him with one important responsibility – the imperative of cooking for the family.

Born in Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands, Sandisile and his mother would spend hours in the kitchen making food. Even though he was young and knew very little about cooking, it instantly became his love and passion.

At that stage I loved to prepare pap and wors, or simple meals like chicken and potato salad, but I fell in love with the process,” says Sandisile.

His older brother, Gcabani, who also worked in hospitality, shared his passion and experience with Sandisile. This later influenced his decision to follow a similar path.

Sandisile with some of his classmates at the Franschhoek Hospitality Academy & Learning Centre.

Where Skills Meet Mentality

As the head boy at Groendal Secondary School in Franschhoek, Sandisile already knew what hard work meant. He was determined to get accepted in the 2020 class at the Franschhoek Hospitality Academy & Learning Centre (FHA) and follow his dreams.

FHA centre provides training in hospitality and leadership development programmes for disadvantaged youths without access to further education beyond high school.

The FHA course, which spans over one year, presents students with a broad view of the entire hospitality industry, pointing to options for going into specific disciplines. Sandisile graduated, receiving top honours in his class.

“FHA has taught me all I need to know: from waitering, being a barista, the art of running front of house, and the duties of housekeeping. Most importantly, they developed me as a person rather than just transferring various sets of skills. You must have the skills, but you must also have the right mentality,” says Sandisile.

Internship at Top South African Restaurant

After his studies, Sandisile applied for an internship at the Eat Out Food School and went through an interview process before he got accepted.

“It is a great opportunity but I realise that I still have a lot to learn,” he says.

His internship also includes service at the renowned La Colombe restaurant in Constantia Nek, Cape Town. Those in the know will tell you that working at La Colombe with Executive Chef, James Gaag, is a make or break opportunity.

“My mum is probably smiling down on me. She always pushed me, but never decided something on my behalf. I had to choose. And I believe my choices are making her proud,” he says, smiling broadly.

Sandisile Sonka stands in front of the Media24 building in Cape Town where he is currently doing his internship at the Eat Out Food School.

Hard Work Trumps Talent

Renowned chef and media personality, Reuben Riffel, is Sandisile’s all-time hero and wants to match his success.

Besides being the top achiever of my class, I really am a hard worker, and I believe that hard work trumps talent. One day, I want to be the executive chef in the kitchen of my own restaurant, a bistro presenting a viby dining experience in a cultural atmosphere,” he concludes.

Photographs and original words by Marzahn Botha.