An Undeserving Charity Case

Plenty to beef about at a hotel school charity dinner

Deep in Central South Africa my presence is required at a charity feast created by the students of the local catering college as part of the practical work required for their year-end exams. I am scared.

I haven’t been faced with a more terrifying ordeal since I had to judge the best restaurant at a cook-off in aid of Epilepsy South Africa, ten years ago in Dullstroom, where each of the highly-strung chefs had knocked up a three-course meal using a basket of ingredients including, among others, a lamb chop, a tin of fish and a can of Esprit. Most of the dishes were disgusting – we just had to decide which was the least horrible, award the prizes and then duck the abuse from a number of very upset Dullstroomian men in kaftans.

This time, however, we were not judges, merely willing victims in search of a three-course meal for fifty bucks. And there was to be no complaining, please.

“Good evening. My name is Kgomotso Ramathlodi* and I am your waitron for this evening. First I am going to give you the menu. Then I am going to get you drinks. Then I am going to take your order. Then I am going to bring your food. Then I am going to clear your plates.” We’d got the picture. If we were going to be guinea pigs in an experiment, at least it was clear from the outset how painful it was likely to be.

From the outside the building looked like a Welsh Yacht Club. From the inside it was a 1970s megalith adorned with naff paintings of the Big Five and loads of stainless steel and concrete. The sun set behind the mountains in a huge pink blur with orange dribbly bits in it.

There was no choice of meal. Our chef, whom we never met but who was the other half of Kgomotso’s team, had constructed a menu of Beef Consomme, followed by Beef Schnitzel with a Pepper Sauce, Mashed Potatoes and Fresh Vegetables, followed by Beef Crumble. Actually I made the last one up. It was Apple Crumble.

Kgomotso brought rolls like squash balls and a Cold Brown Salt-flavoured Soup, grittier than Clint Eastwood. Then she brought Cold Flattened-with-a-Roller Dead Cow and Grey, Watery Pulped Potatoes with Beans and Carrots in Oil. A Coagulated Lumpy Slime with Black Flecks in it arrived later. Too much later to be of any use.

The wine service was so painfully slow that we sneaked in our own refills when she wasn’t looking and all the time, a grim-looking bespectacled Joshua Doore-lookalike and his duskier assistant strutted up and down between the tables, clipboards in hand, like a doctor and nurse with bad news to record. At other tables there was laughter. There were salads and fresh fish. The wine was flowing like the wedding at Cana. At ours we sat on the wagon, dreading the arrival of the crumble.

There may have been no beef in it, but there certainly wasn’t any apple either. It was cold and burnt and contained tennis biscuits. I hate tennis biscuits and I think there should be a warning in large red letters on any dish on a menu that contains them. I would suggest the following wording: SORRY. THE CHEF WAS TOO LAZY TO BAKE. THIS DISH THEREFORE CONTAINS TENNIS BISCUITS AND IS NOT EDIBLE.

The coffee was hot, Oh Joy, and a questionnaire was delivered with the bill. We were honest. Well, we had to be, didn’t we? Kgomotso was fine. She’d done a really good job under the circumstances. But the chef should be failed. In fact not only failed but banned from ever setting foot in a kitchen again and sentenced to eating only tennis biscuits in perpetuity. We left hungry, thirsty and dreaming longingly of lamb stuffed with snoek and marinated in raspberry Esprit.

* The name has been changed so as not to sabotage employment opportunities but she’s probably been snapped up by now.