From America With Love and Care
Giving hope to the previously-left-behind
- Infinity Culinary Training School in Cape Town, a brainchild of Barry Steven Berman, aims to improve lives through cooking
- The school recruits from poorer communities, providing hope to young people who would otherwise not be considered for any positions in life
- The tenth graduation ceremony took place recently, with the graduates finding work in top restaurants in Cape Town
- Barry’s vision is to expand ICT in South Africa and the rest of Africa where opportunities for poor people are limited, and to replicate model in other sectors
Usually, Barry Steven Berman would be spending all his time seeking out stories for his next film. That is his day job; he is an actor and a movie scriptwriter. Some of his best-known works include ‘Benny & Joon’ (1993), ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’ (1996) and ‘Waterproof’ (2000). But in 2009 he decided to spread some love and care into South Africa in a very special way. While his fellow celebrities are rushing to acquire and ship young African kids back to the West, Barry’s kind of adoption is unique and far-reaching in its effects.
Here is Barry’s story of hope...
November 5, 2007: Some 12,000 members (including Barry) of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the official union representing scriptwriters in the film, TV and new media industries, went on strike. They were demanding new contracts with film and TV studios that would allow them to be paid more when their work got sold on DVD or downloaded or streamed online.
To South African audiences, the effects of the strike were not immediately apparent as most of the writers’ products reach us only several months after screening in the US. But Barry, who had just turned fifty, found his work and his future engulfed in uncertainty, and he psyched himself up for a long haul. Unable to write any more scripts while the strike lasted, he decided to take a holiday. He needed somewhere to go and he settled on South Africa.
He tells this journalist that he chose South Africa for the two things he knew and loved about the country: Nelson Mandela, and the local music. “My very loose plan was to land there, get a motorbike and travel throughout Africa,” he says.
But the motorbike trip never happened. When Barry arrived in Cape Town, another cinematographer introduced him to the local lifestyle, and he found right there everything he had ever wanted by way of contrast to his Hollywood life. The same cinematographer also introduced him to Gail Behr of The Pink Table, with whom he struck up an immediate friendship. To Barry, the Cape had everything.
A month after his arrival in Cape Town, the WGA strike ended and Barry returned to his day job in the US. He made another trip to South Africa later that year. But it was during his third trip, in April 2009, that his life took a dramatic and unexpected turn. Inspired by a conversation with a cook at the restaurant where he stayed, he began to think about the possibility of starting a culinary school aimed at providing skills to the disadvantaged.
Barry had never been trained in culinary art. Most travellers are hardly interested in knowing what it takes to create that great-looking dish served at a local restaurant. Most of us have probably gained what little appreciation we have for the art of making good food only by watching the Food Network. But Barry wanted to know more. He wanted to find out more about the real lives of those charged with making the food he was enjoying… [one would say for his next movie script].
All too aware of the spiralling unemployment rates affecting lives across the globe, Barry saw a way to help provide the skills that would create work opportunities for those who needed them most, at the same time as teaching appreciation of the art and science of preparing meals. And that’s how Infinity Culinary Training School was founded: with the goal of improving lives through cooking.
Like with most concepts though, however good they may be, they remain just that – ideas – unless somebody takes the next big step. Barry, the storyteller, found himself talking about it to some South African friends. One of these friends was Georgina Hamilton of Bodhi Khaya Retreat who, when she heard about the idea, donated the seed capital needed to turn the dream into something tangible.
On the 14th of September 2009, two months after Hamilton’s donation, the school admitted its first ten scholars, in a borrowed building in Cape Town’s District 6. “There was no curriculum, money or expertise,” Barry says. “For the first three sessions, I was just scraping by to get the money we needed for food, pots and pans.”
By the third intake, there were staffing problems and Barry contemplated throwing in the towel. If it had been only about himself, he would have been ready to admit failure, but the school had become bigger than him by then. Dashing the hopes of the previously-left-behind was an unbearable thought.
“I then had a decision to make: throw in the towel or devote myself to re-envisioning it and going forward,” says Barry. “We started again in January 2011 with an all-graduate staff, and have been going solidly since then.”
ICT is not like any other further education training institution. Whereas high school diplomas or certificates are usually necessary for enrollment for studies at most institutions, Barry has formulated a dedicated hands-on recruitment policy instead. He tries to fit the various interview processes into his script-writing day-job and this means he now makes at least three trips to South Africa every year.
Barry places particular emphasis on the potential available among the poorer communities. The school, he says, exists not to provide skills to those who are simply looking for further education, but instead “…it is to provide hope to those who would otherwise not be considered for any positions in life.”
The reality is that finding employment often depends on how well-connected an individual is. Parents introduce their kids to their employers or employers’ friends. Friends call on each other to fill vacancies within their work environments. When that happens, poverty simply recycles itself amongst the poor and each ‘disadvantaged’ generation aims no higher than the one before it. With ICT, Barry has changed all that.
Meet Gcobisa Mayekiso of the School’s Tenth Class. Mayekiso suffers a congenital disorder characterised by the absence of skin, hair and eye pigmentations – she is an albino. But despite her condition, she applied for a place at ICT because she had seen how the school had transformed the lives of her friends from the township.
Her arrival for the first interview was an emotional experience for Barry and the other panellists. Like most albinos, Gcobisa had vision problems and had been turned away from several other openings for which she had applied. The ICT panellists went all out to give her the chance she deserved. However, considering her vision problems, there was no way she could have been handed a kitchen knife unless they wanted her to chop off her fingers. So Barry arranged for her to get a pair of spectacles first. Barry and Megan Kruger, another ICT Board member, agreed that aiding her vision was a no-brainer and they indeed never thought much about it.
But Gcobisa, a lady who had herself been ‘left-behind’ so often, never forgot. During the Tenth Graduation Ceremony, upon receiving her certificate, a tearful Gcobisa thanked the school for giving her not just the skills that would transform her future, but also her sight. “I can now see!” she announced proudly. She is currently working at Blowfish Restaurant in Cape Town where the manager and other colleagues had all the best things to say about her.
Upon completion of their courses, the ICT graduates are quickly snapped up by Cape Town’s top restaurants.
Barry has split his vision for the school into four phases, which he explains as follows:
- Short-Term: to expand our classes in Cape Town
- Medium-Term: to grow into Johannesburg, Durban, and other cities
- Long-Term: to make use of our teaching methods and approaches in other skill sectors
- Longer-Term: to expand the school into other countries (“…but I’ll probably be dead by then!”)
When asked how much the school has cost him over the years, Barry’s response is instant. “I’m not being coy here, but it’s impossible to say what the school has cost me,” he says, “because it’s repaid me a million times over.” And for that, he is not giving up any time soon.
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