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Ex-President’s chef now in Strand

The Chef de Cuisine and former household manager at the official residence of the President for 22 years, Hilton Little, who served VIP meals to heads of state and international guests of successive Presidents, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlante and Jacob Zuma, has moved to Strand, where he has opened his own catering company.

The move would come at a cost and Strand was “the last place” on his mind – but ultimately it was “God’s plan”, Hilton Little told DistrictMail this week, sharing his story and the new journey he has undertaken.

Little grew up in Lansdowne and after leaving school completed a six-month basic cooking course at the Landdrost Hotel, before serving a three-year apprenticeship at the Holiday Inn above Nelson Mandela Boulevard, just outside the city.

He was soon employed by the Cape Sun, in the city centre, where he moved through the ranks and was regularly nominated in cooking competitions nationally and internationally, and where he built a reputation of being among the best of the best.

A friend of Little’s, who was employed by the Presidency, approached him in 1995 with an offer he says he couldn’t refuse.

“My friend asked me if I would like to be household manager at the official residence of the President in Rondebosch,” Little said. “I agreed, but then heard nothing for the next six months . . . until I got a call from someone telling me Mandela wanted to see me.”

On the day of the appointment Little was running late. After arriving at the premises he was told Mandela had already gone to bed as he wasn’t feeling well, but Little could go through to the bedroom as Mandela was expecting him.

“It was a moment I would never forget. He urged me to bring a chair and sit closer to his bed, and spoke to me as if I knew him all my life. He was well informed of my career and asked me to work for him. Within two weeks I started.”

Madiba loved his cooking and would even fly Little to his private residence in Qunu in the Eastern Cape to prepare meals for VIP guests and kings who would visit. Madiba soon made Little the Chef de Cusine for the President, a position he held until 2017.

“It was an honour working for him and something I will treasure for the rest of my life. I also became part of an international elite group of chefs, club chef de chefs, and soon after I got the idea to write a cookery book, which I started to compile a little at a time. When Mandela stepped down I served under Thabo Mbeki, who was also very impressed with my skills. Mbeki approached me one day and asked me if I ever thought of writing a book. I smiled and showed him my manuscript, which he loved.” Mbeki helped him get rid of all the red tape and realise his dream of publishing the aptly titled Bon Appetit, Mr President.

Little said fine dining was his speciality and he was requested to cook only when heads of state were visiting. He was also flown to Pretoria for state banquets and similar functions all over the country and internationally.

“Our main task was to prepare the best meals and never cause embarrassment to the President or his family,” he said. “I love my job and am passionate about food. I received compliments from the Queen of England, the Princess of Monaco and several other visiting heads of state.”

After 22 years, Little decided it was time for a shift and to start something of his own. He said “it saddens him” when he comes across catering companies that don’t provide value for a service people are paying for.

“I thrive on the three Ps of cooking – passion, patience and pride. Without passion it’s just a job, you have to be patient to get the product perfect, and when you’re done you should serve it with so much pride that you can even put your name on it.”

After resigning from the Presidency, finding suitable premises with a large enough kitchen for his business idea to start a catering company proved harder than he initially thought.

“It took 10 months for my pension money to come through, and I had been depending on it,” he said.

“While waiting, money became tight and I had to sell an old Mercedes that I had saved up for, just to make ends meet. I also had to sell my bakkie. Most of our possessions were in storage and eventually I couldn’t afford to pay for it, so that too was lost.”

But with his head held high, Little said the experience strengthened his belief that all was in God’s plan.

“I never gave up hope and remained positive. We searched everywhere for business premises and somewhere to live, but at the same time couldn’t pay, as the pension was yet to come through. Strand was the last place my wife and I were looking in, but we found a place here and fell in love with its charm.”

The place they found is in Michau Street, with an attached historical manor.

Eventually his pension came through and Little slowly started his catering company, Chef Hilton Little Supreme Cuisine and Catering.

He’s also started baking cakes and desserts, which are sold out within minutes at supermarkets. He thrives on catering for large groups of people who demand quality food.

“I do a lot of thinking,” Little said. “Every recipe I come across I tweak and twist a bit to make perfect. Everyone who tastes any meal I prepare immediately falls in love with it.

“I don’t take short cuts. I love preparing meals, and I’m not limited to what I can do. Baking, cooking and even catered spitbraais, and everything in between, are what I now provide to the public. When I serve my food I prepare it to the same exacting standards, fit for royalty, I have been doing all these years. That’s what customers expect.”

Asked what his thoughts are of living in Strand, he doesn’t miss a beat.

“I’m so close to the ocean now it’s fantastic. I never thought I would end up here, but now I can’t see myself leaving”.

To get in touch with Little, follow his Facebook Page “Chef Hilton Little Supreme Cuisine and Catering” or send an email to chefhiltonlittle@gmail.com.

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