Jackie Cameron: From chef to entrepreneur
Jackie Cameron is truly a KwaZulu-Natal treasure while remaining incredibly humble.
In 2001, Jackie Cameron graduated from the Christina Martin School of Food and Wine before starting her culinary work at Mount Grace Country House and Spa. Eventually she went on to take a permanent position at Hartford House.
She has been there since 2002 and, under her influence, Hartford House won numerous awards, including a spot in the Eat Out Top 10 no less than four times. She guided Hartford House to winning the 2013 Inspirational Award in the Top 100 SA Short List Wine List, as well as a Diamond Award for its 2012 and 2013 wine list. The talented chef is a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs member, has appeared on TV programmes such as MasterChef SA, Top Billing and The Ultimate Braai Master, and is on the KwaZulu-Natal committee for the South African Chefs Association.
In 2015 she opened up The Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine, where she mentors and teaches her extensive knowledge to hand-picked students. Jackie chooses 15 students to mentor over an 18-month or 3-year period.
Apart from the school, Jackie also has two restaurants – The School Outlet and Br.unch, both daytime eateries that only open over the weekend. They use and showcase the best of local produce like Terbodore Coffee and Champagne Valley milled flour.
Her entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t end there – she has also released two books: Baking with Jackie Cameron and Jackie Cameron Cooks at Home. After the birth of her adorable daughter, she launched her own baby food line available on her website or at the Hilton Quarry SuperSpar.
We chatted with the prolific entrepreneur, discussing everything from baby food to the future ahead.
Q: Why did you find the need to produce your own baby food range when your little one was born?
A: With the extensive food knowledge that I have, I know that baby foods on shelves that come in glass bottles or squeezi packets have to have preservatives, added sugar or are over-cooked. I use products from farms where I know the farmers and their families, so I know the processes used to get this on the table. I prefer organic and free range ingredients so that the true and authentic product is going to the baby. I wanted to give busy parents a healthier option in feeding their little ones, as there was a gap in the market.
When I fell pregnant I made a conscious decision to ensure that my little girl got food from reliable sources. I started then (and still do now!) only eat foods where I know the farmer, his family and his children on a personal level. That way I know that I can control the nutrition of my family and myself, only eating foods that are fresh, organic and free range.
Not all parents are as pedantic as me, but most care enough that they want to feed their children the best food free of preservatives, chemical additives, salt and sugar. Parents just don’t have the time in today’s rushed world.
Q: How does your range differ from other commercial baby food brands?
A: Our range has single food items that are cooked under strict hygienic protocols. We source seasonal produce grown locally in the KZN Midlands. We have free range beef mince, free range shredded chicken, baby marrow and butternut puree. This allows parents to test for allergies or mix the foods to the child’s individual taste preference and dietary requirements.
Q: How can parents outside of KZN order and purchase these items?
A: Our baby food tubs are sold frozen, so they can be ordered online at The Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine website. We ship to most parts of the country.
Q: How hands-on are you with The School Outlet and Br.unch ?
A: I have my past students running the restaurants. At The School Outlet I have chef Andiswa. She oversees the restaurant, comes up with the menu and plates, while I oversee, guide and tweak the plating, menus and recipes.
Q: Why was there a need to have two restaurants on site?
A: When we initially opened the school, lots of corporates chose to host their functions there, which was great as my students need to work at least 40 functions as part of the course training. Fortunately as the corporate functions slowed down, the outside catering picked up. But when both slowed down, the only place for students to get their service hours was at the restaurants on site. Now that Covid-19 restrictions have eased, the functions are picking up again.
Q: What is the highlight of your career so far?
A: By the age of 25 I won my first Eat Out award and most of the other prestigious awards in the country. I worked exceptionally hard for this, but I am so much happier when I see my students doing well. The growth and development of my students and staff gets me out of bed.
It’s a lot easier to celebrate my students’ achievements. I was so excited at the Eat Out awards to see so many of my students doing so well at up-and-coming restaurants. Three of my ex-students are working in Eat Out acclaimed restaurants, including Living Room at Summerhill, the restaurant that won Best Restaurant at this year’s Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards ceremony.
Q: What was the hardest time in your career?
A: The transition period between Hartford House and opening my school. Not many people knew I was training to become a teacher. They saw the blonde hair, blue eyes and earrings, and thought I was going to teach their daughters to be Jackie Cameron in 18 months. No one realised the seriousness and intensity of my course. It took two years of my school opening until others in the industry saw the calibre of my graduates – then I started to get a lot more support from the industry.
Q: So far you’ve appeared on MasterChef SA and Colour Your Plate with Koo as a judge – is there more television in your future?
I enjoy being on television, I would love to do more of it! If I have the chance to be on a TV show then I have the chance to teach and educate more. Everyone in the industry knows how I teach and the way I teach, but the mum and dad at home with the child in matric don’t know how I teach or why my fees are so high.
Q: What’s in the future for Jackie Cameron?
A: To teach and train more students. There is such a need for more trained chefs in the industry. To grow my school, I also need to learn how to step back and watch my staff step up, though this is easier said than done. Basically step back and watch things run without being 100% involved.