Deaf staff get Balalaika hotel cooking

The area around the Balalaika hotel in Johannesburg’s bustling commercial capital of Sandton is so built up that no street parking is available. Metered taxies, buses and pedestrians crowd the road. Valets whisk guests’ cars away past the JSE in the direction of the colossal Sandton City shopping centre to a designated parkade. It’s difficult to imagine the hotel in its original state: as a countryside tea garden in an area that “reeked more of manure than mink”.

“The Balalaika was the first original business and building in Sandton,” said Karen Peters, the hotel’s marketing manager.

The hotel served as a stopover between Johannesburg and Pretoria before anything like Sandton existed.

The hotel’s founders proved prescient. Today, all the big names in the industry have rushed to establish themselves in the area.

In the same pioneering spirit, the Balalaika has established another first: four of this year’s 10 trainees going through its four-year hotelier course are deaf. The programme, which trains them in professional cookery and hotel management, has seen staff members making changes to the usual way of doing things.

“We needed to look at dynamics in the hospitality industry,” said Nancy Gaylard, the hotel’s training manager.

Programme viability
She put out feelers to determine the viability of a deaf programme and contacted Stephen Billingham, the owner of the HTA School of Culinary Art and president of the South African Chefs Association.

“Nancy asked me whether I thought it would work to upskill deaf people in professional cookery. I said the answer is yes,” Billingham said.

But there might be some limits to how a far a deaf person could progress in the kitchen, he acknowledged. “At the senior levels, communication, like calling out orders, becomes important. Then things like industrial relations also come into play. That might prove difficult. But this would be a sound opportunity for people to have a job, draw a stable salary and pay tax,” he said.

Gaylard spent the next 18 months in meeting after meeting, mapping out a training plan and forming partnerships with educational institutions. By the end of it, the Balalaika had set up an agreement to find suitable candidates from St Vincent School for the Deaf to join its training programme. HTA agreed to partner with the hotel to provide training for deaf trainees interested in professional cookery. The University of Johannesburg (UJ) agreed to take on a candidate who wished to qualify for hotel management.

The trainees began with a weekly experiential session at the hotel. Several months later, deaf and hearing trainees started the full-time training course together.

“We thought, ‘Why can’t we do this for deaf learners? What’s the hurdle?’ Well, it’s more than you think,” Gaylard said.

Job rotation
The programme involves an initial rotation of 12 months, during which the trainees spend a month in each department. This is followed by three years of specialisation in the trainee’s chosen field. This means the deaf trainees interact with almost every area of the hotel and mentors in each need to be able to communicate with them.

“You can’t just hire them and stick them in a corner. You have to learn the language,” Gaylard said.

The Balalaika hotel’s training manager, Nancy Gaylard, set up the programme for the trainees. (Gustav Butlex, M&G)

The Balalaika has sent 16 staff members on a 10-week South African Sign Language (SASL) course. More are scheduled for training in the coming months.

“I want at least half the hotel’s staff complement to be signing by the end of the year,” she said.

In the hotel kitchen, Nelisiwa Motaung (21), Goodness Wellem (20) and Simamkele Twani (22) wear white chef’s uniforms. The three are scattered around the kitchen, washing and chopping in preparation for a conference lunch and the next morning’s breakfast.

A senior hearing member of the kitchen staff gestures at Twani, instructing him what to do next. She doesn’t know sign language, but Twani nods and goes about his task.

“I want to be a chef. It’s my favourite thing to do,” he signed. “My heart is there for cooking.”

Twani has a mother and two siblings but he is the only deaf person in his family. Born in the Western Cape, his mother sent him to a normal school but his world was one of silence and con­fusion. “It was very difficult,” he said.

Later, his family moved to Johannes­burg and, when he was 10, Twani began to attend St Vincent and learnt SASL. It was then that his life “began”. He matriculated and spent some time working at the school’s tuck shop before being chosen for the programme at the Balalaika.

He and his colleagues have spent the past eight months at the hotel and are relishing the experience.

“I enjoy working here,” said Twani. “The opportunities for deaf and hearing are the same in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s difficult. But it makes it easier working with people who can sign. They explain and show how the work is done.”

Cooking competition
Twani competed against other chefs in the kitchen for a chance to represent the hotel in the Cape Legend Inter Hotel Challenge, a prestigious national cooking competition. He won a spot on a team of three and is now preparing for the event, where the main dish will consist of his favourite meat – pork. The team will use sign language to communicate.

One of his teammates, Jurie van Heusden (21), said it was initially difficult to communicate. “But now it’s easier since I have done the course.

“[But] there are some words that don’t have a sign, so we make them up,” Van Heusden said. “There’s no sign for curry, so we say ‘Indian hot food’.”

The hotel’s executive chef, Jacques Etsebeth, was initially sceptical about the programme. “Originally, I wasn’t too keen on the whole idea. I thought it was going to be far too difficult,” he said. “But Nancy guided me and showed me. It was actually damn easy.”

The experience had been amazing, he said. “They work hard, they’re eager to learn and, funnily enough, they’re actually very easy to communicate with. I find it extremely easy to work with them.”

SA statistics
About 4.5% of South Africans are considered either deaf or have a hearing disability (roughly 500 000 deaf and 1.5-million with a hearing disability, according to the most recent census). Deaf unemployment levels are estimated to be about 70%.

This abysmally high rate of joblessness is one of the reasons that UJ agreed to take on Poonam Kanjee (19), the Balalaika’s fourth deaf trainee, for one of its hotel management courses. She is the first deaf student at the university to attend lectures using SASL and an interpreter.

“Our main aim is to create more access for students with disabilities,” said Maria Ramaahlo, a psychologist in UJ’s office for people with disabilities.

Kanjee would require a level-two interpreter for each of her lectures and a data capturer to take notes during class.

“I think, as with any institution, the main difficulty in getting this right was funding,” she said. “However, thanks to the dedication of our team leader and management, who is very supportive, we managed to get funds through the university.”

Flying colours
Every night Kanjee rewrites the notes that the data capturer has taken. During lectures, she asks questions through her interpreter. Despite the difficulties, she passed her first exams with flying colours.

“It feels good. I have had a lot of support and help. The hearing people helped me when they found out I was deaf. They made friends with me and I helped them to sign.”

Ramaahlo said Kanjee’s success would open up the way for other deaf students at UJ.

“The successful implementation of this project has allowed us to indicate to management how to support deaf students in the future,” she said. “It almost creates a precedent of sorts.”

Kanjee has just finished her rotation in the hotel’s bookings and reservations department. Monday was her first day on the front desk. She will begin by shadowing a senior staff member, but will still be expected to help customers. She has already had her first challenge, dealing with a guest who asked her to make a phone call. They handled it by writing back and forth.

Next month, she’ll be working in the restaurant, taking guests’ orders and serving food.

“I’m very nervous. How will I communicate with the guests if I don’t know what they are ordering? It’s difficult when not everyone is deaf.”

SASL staff
Gaylard will need to gear the department up for Kanjee’s arrival, ensuring that the staff are versed in SASL and that there are ways in which she can fulfil her tasks.

Kanjee said every day brought new challenges. “Sometimes I feel nervous, communicating with guests. I don’t want to make them angry because I am slow and deaf.”

So far, though, the hotel management has had no negative feedback from guests. Gaylard recalled a time when guests lined up to be served eggs by Kanjee at breakfast, even though a hearing server wasn’t busy at the time. The hotel plans to offer guests a free app providing them with basic signs to communicate with deaf staff.

“It takes commitment. It’s not easy. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job.”

But Gaylard has been impressed by how everyone involved has accepted the challenge.

“So far, nobody that I have approached has said no. They have all said ‘how’?”

Jobs for the deaf
Kanjee feels most employers need to open more doors for deaf people in the workplace.

“I have a job here but other deaf people struggle to find a job. When someone writes that they are deaf on their CV, the employer puts the CV aside and won’t even do an interview,” she said. “There’s no support. It’s very little.”

Ingrid Parkin, the principal of St Vincent, agrees that business isn’t doing enough. “Employers don’t realise how deaf people contribute to businesses in a positive way, in that they are focused, hardworking and really appreciate opportunities to better themselves and contribute to the economy,” she said.

Gaylard has thrown down the gauntlet to other hotels in Sandton by building up the own deaf training programmes. And HTA, which now has a lecturer and facilities manager who are trained in sign language, hopes to expand the programme to other kitchens.

Parkin and Ramaahlo advocate collaboration between employers and educational institutions as a way to train and employ deaf people.

“Communication [for the deaf in the workplace] is always a challenge. However, this is not insurmountable,” Parkin said.

“Asking your employee what they require will help make the work environment accessible,” Ramaahlo said. “Employers need to have the mindset that deaf people can work in any environment that is supportive.”

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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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