All about the Distell Inter Hotel Challenge

Friday, 19 April, 2019
“When you get into a hotel room, you lock the door, and you know there is a secrecy, there is a luxury, there is fantasy. There is comfort. There is reassurance.” These words by Belgian fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, who rose to fame and became Princess Diane of Fürstenberg when she married Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, are often used to describe the unique allure of hotels.

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) tourism in South Africa contributed 1,5 million jobs and R425.8 billion of the economy, making it the largest tourism economy in Africa. It is a trend that has to continue – and that won’t happen without the commitment of the hotels themselves and a move to invest heavily in on-going quality of service delivery and mentorship of employees.

In a busy programme of formal gala launches and intensive workshops for the candidates, the 7th annual Distell Inter Hotel Challenge has reached the end of its three month roll-out phase. 28 teams representing 32 hotels around the country, have now lined up their finest and most promising young protégés, including chefs, bakers, wine stewards and this year, in a new move to incorporate all aspects of the trade, concierges.  The participating candidates will continue with their rigorous mentorship and educational programme in the weeks ahead as they work with their mentors ahead of the June national “Cook-Offs” where they will compete head to head. The Challenge culminates in a glamorous “Oscars” prize-giving ceremony in August.

Behind the air of friendly competitive frisson is a real and meaningful mentorship programme that not only upskills the candidates but also contributes to their CV and their future career path. The Distell Inter Hotel Challenge is in every true sense of the phrase, a programme of far-reaching social responsibility objectives. The primary objective of the competition is to create and sustain a strong national base of top quality chefs, bakers, wine stewards and concierges.

“Education is the key in this industry,“commented Niël Groenewald, Managing Director of Brands, Estates & Supply chain, Libertas Vineyards & Estates. “Brands such as Distell believe we have a responsibility to train rigorously in all aspects of our business to ultimately ensure top quality service delivery. For us this includes exposing our up and coming wine stewards to the international market and industry.”

“It is interesting to note that this year we celebrate 360 years of winemaking in South Africa – and international interest in our local wine industry is trending. I believe South African wine has assumed a new level of quality and a clearly differentiated and distinctive voice. Many of those who have been following the progress of the industry over the years have remarked on the clearly visible impact of the extensive innovation in wine-growing and winemaking. This has certainly translated into greater confidence amongst wine producers, who are now more than readily expressing what is uniquely South African in their wines.”

“Wines of South Africa (WOSA) did however report a positive growth in the overall value of South African wine exports in its Export Report 2018. It states that a 4% increase in value to R9.06 billion reflects the positive sentiments towards South African wine in international markets, despite the 6% decrease in volume to 420.2 million litres of wine sold internationally. The value of packaged wine increased by 3% and that of bulk wine by a respectable 7%.”

Exposure to the international hospitality industry is an important ingredient to the Challenge as the top candidates in both the chef and wine stewards categories will be flown overseas for an intensive mentorship experience with some of the most famous international names and venues in the world. Distell will be taking 2019 “Wine Steward of the Year” for a chance of a lifetime travel experience to Distell distilleries; Deanston and Bunnhabhain in Scotland, Bordeaux and visit La Cité du Vin in France as well as 67 Pall Mall in London.

The 2019 “Chef of the Year” has an equally astonishing and career changing prize to look forward to. The Minor Hotel Group will be hosting the winner for three weeks in Bangkok where they will be mentored by three top international hotels in the Minor Group: the Anantara Riverside, the Anantara Sathorn and the Anantara Siam. A hugely exciting extra element to the experience is that the young chef will attend the World Gourmet Festival where he or she will be cooking with more than 20 combined Michelin stars!

”This initiative is what the South African hospitality industry needs,” commented Ashleigh Christie, Regional HR Director – Africa Minor Hotels. “There is so much undiscovered talent out there, all waiting for the chance to shine! We actively want to be a part of the process that finds and grows our new talent for tomorrow’s hospitality industry. Those of us in the industry should all strive to play a role.”

The emphasis on education, skills training and knowledge gathering is key to the entire challenge with prizes reflecting the gravitas of the concept. The Cape Wine Academy, the International Hotel School, the Hospitality Property Fund and Distell offering developmental bursaries and courses as various prizes. Chantel Dartnall, famously the holder of the 2017 “World’s Best Female Chef” award at the Best Chef Awards in Poland, is also offering a mentorship experience at her Restaurant Mosaic for the top chef and wine steward together. The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, themselves winners of the Best Baker accolade for five years running, will be offering the “Most Promising Bio-Wheat Baker” of the year and magical mentoring opportunity of two weeks. These flights generously provided by British Airways operated by Comair.

One of the important outcomes of the Distell Inter Hotel Challenge is in fact the coming together of the hotel industry in South Africa. Individuals and teams who would ordinarily see each other as competition, join forces in the name of collaborative mentorship and generously share their knowledge, their skills, their venues and even their secrets!

Concept creators, managers, organisers and drivers behind South Africa’s only inter hotel mentorship challenge, Annette Kesler and Chania Morritt-Smith believe that their job is to bring the wealth of hospitality industry talent we have in this country together and provide a platform for learning and skills exchange. Their company dedicates itself completely to this inspiring goal.

“We have a responsibility to ensure South Africa’s hospitality stars are found and nurtured right here on our own soil,” says Annette Kesler. “That’s what the Distell Inter Hotel Challenge has at its heart. Chania and I can’t make this happen unless the hotels themselves stand alongside us, and that is exactly what is happening. It is true collaborative project with the securing of the future health and success of the hospitality industry as its goal.”

The formidable competing teams are:

  1. BELMOND MOUNT NELSON HOTEL: Pongrácz & Van Ryn’s
  2. BEVERLY HILLS: Fleur du Cap & Cruz  
  3. DE HOEK COUNTRY HOTEL: Nederburg & Black Bottle Whisky
  5. DURBAN INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION CENTRE: Nederburg & Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky
  6. ELLERMAN HOUSE: Fleur du Cap & Scottish Leader
  7. GROOTBOS PRIVATE NATURE RESERVE: Fleur du Cap & Three Ships Whisky
  8. LANZERAC HOTEL & SPA: Durbanville Hills & Cruz Vodka
  9. MASLOW SUN TIME SQUARE: Zonnebloem & Gordon’s London Dry Gin
  10. NH THE LORD CHARLES HOTEL: Zonnebloem & Gordon’s London Dry Gin
  11. ONE&ONLY CAPE TOWN: Durbanville Hills & Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky
  12. PROTEA HOTEL BY MARRIOTT DURBAN EDWARD: Durbanville Hills & Gordon’s London Dry Gin
  15. REUBEN’S RESTAURANT AT THE CAPITAL MOLOKO: Plaisir de Merle & Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky
  16. SAXON HOTEL, VILLAS & SPA: Pongrácz & Scottish Leader Whisky
  17. SOUTHERN SUN ELANGENI & MAHARANI: Plaisir de Merle & Black Bottle
  18. SPIER HOTEL: Nederburg & Black Bottle
  19. SUN INTERNATIONAL THE TABLE BAY: Allesverloren & Three Ships Whisky
  20. TAJ CAPE TOWN: Zonnebloem & Scottish Leader
  21. THE 12 APOSTLES HOTEL & SPA: Nederburg & Van Ryn’s
  22. THE PALACE OF THE LOST CITY: Allesverloren & Van Ryn’s
  23. THE PRESIDENT HOTEL: Allesverloren & Three Ships Whisky
  24. THE ROYAL PORTFOLIO La Residence and The Royal Port Folio - The Silo: Plaisir de Merle & Black Bottle
  25. THE VINEYARD: Alto & Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky
  26. TSOGO SUN TEAM GAUTENG Sandton Sun: Fleur du Cap & Cruz Vodka


A new exciting element to the Challenge this year is the introduction of a photography contest. Candidates, executive chefs, management, sommeliers and anyone involved in the competition were invited to take photographs of their food and wine dishes as they started practising and preparing for the cook-offs ahead. During the Gala Launches, five winning hotels were presented with a EOS M100 Canon camera each in order to enter the second phase of the competition. The five finalists will continue to chart their team’s journey on Instagram #CanonChallenge2019 and the grand winner will be announced at the final prize-giving Oscars ceremony in August. The winning hotel will be presented with five PowerShot SX620 Canon cameras.

“We are thrilled with the participation, creativity and expertise shown by the participants,” says Dana Eitzen of Canon South Africa.

Here are the comments recorded by the Canon team of judges for the winning top five:

A beautiful display of artistic food photography. The focal point is in the best possible place to show a tint of reflection.
- Entered by Chef Stephen Fraser, THE LANZERAC HOTEL & SPA

“So many great shots from Beverly Hills that it was hard to pick. We loved this one because it is unique with great height and depth, a very interesting shot!”
- Entered by Joanita Venter of THE BEVERLY HILLS

“The colour is the most attractive feature in this shot. It's bright and colourful with a unique sense of attractiveness. Very good display of colour.”
- Entered by Richard Carstens, REUBEN’S AT THE CAPITAL MOLOKO

“What a clean shot even though the middle is busy and colourful, it is such a clean, elegant display of food.”
- Entered by Jane-Therese Mulry, THE SAXON HOTEL, VILLAS & SPA

“We enjoyed The President Hotel's presentations, this shot specifically is simple, colourful and just plainly attractive. Well done!”
- Entered by Rudi Williams, THE PRESIDENT HOTEL, Cape Town

#DistellIHC2019 #InterHotelChallenge