Coleman, who grew up along South Africa’s South Coast, boasts an impressive resume. A familiar face in Knysna, he moved to the seaside town back in 2003, and has worked at two other popular establishments: Pezula Resort Hotel & Spa and the East Head Café. He wanted to be a chef since the age of 13, and in 2015 he and six other top chefs in the Western Cape were pronounced “Trailblazers” in the 2015 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the SA Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) award ceremony. This award celebrates the active promotion of sustainable seafood in the restaurant industry.
Read all about his journey towards becoming a chef, what drew him to the Turbine, what he loves about the industry and much more below.
Q: How long have you been a chef for?
A: I can’t even count the years there are so many. But since 1987. Starting out from scratch, it was a group of friends on Friday evenings after youth group, making pancakes. That’s how it started. From there it led to looking me applying to be a chef in the army. We didn’t get to do the full SADF training – but we got work experience. After 3 months of initiation, I was placed into a kitchen and then 6 months after they promoted me to corporal and gave me my own kitchen. Serving about 97 call it in-mates. That gave me my first taste and once I got that taste I realised okay this is something I want to do. My parents had already enrolled me in college, I was due to become an electrician – it was all organised for me – and then I went and changed it to do this. So out of 2500 students that applied, there were 30-odd that got into the Southern Sun’s in-house training. Only 9 or 12 of us finished and I think there are only 3 of us still cooking. The fall out is radical.
That was the start and that was where the passion grew, along with when I was exposed to international chefs. From there it was finishing off the studies and then applying. My focus was never career; it was always family. So I made decisions, possibly bad decisions, but they were all because of family. It was positions that enabled me to be closer to the family, get married, have children, and move around the country with them.
Q: What was the draw to the Turbine?
A: Chris, the General Manager, mostly. I’ve always loved the place, I’ve always been interested by the combination of the turbines, the art and the heritage. I personally know 2 of the 3 people left in Knysna who worked on these turbines. And then knowing the owners have a passion for art was a draw. I’ve always thought I was an artist with food. My mother was an artist and I loved art at school. I never did anything professionally and I was never very good at it, but the artistic part of plating and presentation has always been my passion, more so than flavours. The flavours came much later in my career. That was the catch – the art. I like to present pretty food, and this is the place for it. It’s a beautiful hotel.
Q: What there anything else you wanted to be?
A: Before, no, but now I’m a hobbyist beekeeper. It’s a recent passion from 2010 that I’ve found on the side. I’ve got 14 hives in 3 different areas. Beekeepers keep hives on top of roofs in the hotels in New York, in these crazy settings. So things like that, I would like to incorporate. It’s part of that ethos – raw farm to the table kind of food – that I’m wanting to do. Trying to keep things as simple as possible in flavour. Presentation can get complex, but the flavours must be simple.
Q: What’s your favourite dish to cook.
A: Seafood. Crayfish. Mussels.
Q: What’s your favourite dish to make at home?
A: Spaghetti Bolognese
Q: What’s your favourite dish to eat?
A: Fresh fish and almost any dessert.
Q: What are your top 3 ingredients?
A: Vanilla. Honey. Herbs. Generally, I love herbs – I like the freshness that it brings to a palette. I like the freshness that it brings to a plate of food. But it needs to correspond, it needs to be part of the dish – I don’t like it as a garnish. It needs to be a seasoning that has an effect on the meal.
Q: What is the hardest thing about being a chef? Or about the industry as a whole?
A: There are a lot of things that are hard in this industry. It’s finding a balance between being an artist and being profitable. I’ve worked in businesses that are super creative and they run at a loss, and I’ve worked in businesses that are not creative at all and they are making money. To find that middle ground is very hard. From a work hours point of view, it’s tough. Your family life will suffer, you’ve got to know that when you get into the industry. It’s glamourised by DSTV and food channels, and it’s not like that at all. It gives you a very unreal perspective of what it’s like in the business. You come in with that “Well, I’m creative, I’m an artist, I’m a chef”, and when the boss says “Listen, I’m making money.” He wants a Greek salad because he knows Greek salad is going to sell, and you’ve got to suck up your pride and say “Okay, well maybe I can do the Greek salad in a more artistic way.” Everything requires compromise but that’s the hardest is – finding that balance.
Q: What’s the best thing about being a chef?
A: The team, always the team. Inspiring youngsters to develop, to see development and growth in an individual. That’s very rewarding. That’s mostly why I do it. To inspire somebody to go further in the industry, to where you can manage your own kitchen and teach others. To discover that there’s progression and it can be a rewarding career, you’ve just got to want to focus and do it.
Q: What advice do you have for someone looking to become a chef?
A: You need a lot of patience. You can be arrogant, you can have an ego, you can have all of that but it won’t get you very far. You will be brought to your knees by either your team or your boss; someone will bring you down to earth, it doesn’t matter how big your ego is. Have humility, be humble, be respectful, that’s all you really need. And obviously you need to have a commitment, if you make the commitment, you push for it. If you’re sitting on the fence and you don’t really know this is for you, choose something else. It’s tough, it’s very difficult conditions. The conditions of working in a kitchen vary from kitchen to kitchen, but mostly they’re always hot, it’s always tense, it’s never a very peaceful environment. There’s chefs that just want to create that peace, and there many get it right, but to get a peaceful kitchen is rare. You’ve got 15 minutes to get that food out from time of order. I can’t give you a recipe for success and I don’t know that I’ll ever be successful here either, but from what I’ve experienced is that if you’re not here all the time, it doesn’t work. You have to be consistent about your time and your work. And that’s hard work.
Make your way to the Island Café on Thesen Island to sample Greg’s mouth-watering culinary creations for yourself.