Face-to-face with top chefs

NOVEMBER 2010 – What happens when you get three of South Africa’s best chefs in the kitchen, each passionate about their relationship with food in the current context? Why, you stir the pot of course!

Did you know that there are only three restaurants in Africa included in the Top 100 of the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants Awards for 2010 – and they are all based in the Western Cape? Sharing the stage with culinary luminaries such as Alain Ducasse, Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry – Luke Dale-Roberts (ranked 12th), Margot Janse (ranked 31st) and David Higgs (ranked 74th) offer world-class cuisine priced in pocketfriendly rands – a boon for both gourmet travellers and foodie locals. The trio met up at the Chef’s Warehouse – the new venture from ex-Michelin-starred chef Liam Tomlin, where he imparts insider kitchen knowledge and sells the best equipment and hard-to-find ingredients for the job – to talk about local produce, staff training and their take on South Africa’s place on the international food map.

Tell us what have each of you been up to in the last little while?

Luke Dale-Roberts (LDR), former executive chef at La Colombe, voted 12th in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, and now owner of The Test Kitchen. I’ve recently opened The Test Kitchen:
It’s a concept restaurant designed by some of our best local talents and I’ll be taking the time to explore the relationship between food and art. I needed to change something in my life – trying to fit creativity in amongst everything else became virtually impossible. The space will be purely about creative development.

Margot Janse (MJ), multi award-winning executive chef at The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français, voted 31st in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards:
I have been at LQF for 15 years! I don’t think I would have been able to acheive what I have anywhere else, or seen the things I have without the support I have from Susan Huxter [the owner of Le Quartier Français]. It’s incredible working with someone who wants change and isn’t afraid to try new things – she’s never put a wall up saying you can’t do that. My strong focus now is to close borders and to go African…

David Higgs (DH), executive chef at the award-winning Rust en Vrede restaurant, voted 74th in the San Pellegrino World’s 51-100 Best Restaurants Awards:
I’ve spent the past three and a half years getting my hands dirty and I’m starting to really find myself, and am excited about the coming season. I’ve been fortunate to have fantastic support and we’re starting to reap the rewards with regular and plentiful bookings at the restaurant.

Let’s talk about the ‘closing borders’ that Margot mentioned.

DH: I have mixed feelings about the concept. I’ve been cooking in this country for 20 years and, having come from a background of iceberg lettuce, tomato roses and curly parsley to where we are now, I’ve seen the incredible change in produce. But whenever I travel overseas I realise we have still a long way to go.
MJ: There are fantastic products to use from overseas but I still think that we’re not accessing or using a fraction of what we should or could be in South Africa.
LDR: The produce we get here really is improving all the time – for me, imported items are the icing on the cake.
DH: The problems we still face in South Africa are consistency in quality. Things are getting better though. A large part of our clientele is local and I like to surprise them with things such as the occasional special French cheese or Kobe beef, but it’s not a standard focus.

What do you think about the standards of local produce?

LDR: Cooking in South Africa, you latch onto new developments in produce quickly – it’s not that often we see new things. It’s challenging working in an environment where you don’t have things available all the time – you’re forced to adapt and stretch yourself.
MJ: We spend a lot of time finding out and researching the new items and possibilities out there, and I think it’s up to us as chefs to push our suppliers.
Liam Tomlin (LT): We tend to use a market shopping mentality here at the Chef’s Warehouse – finding out what’s new at the market and sharing it with our classes. We’re lucky because we’re using small volumes, so we can do that.
LDR: I discovered Ondersteun Handelaars at the Salt River Market the other day – the best vegetables in Cape Town. Fresh turmeric, horseradish – I couldn’t believe how wide the selection was.
MJ: Ten years ago things were a lot worse. I prefer to work with the small suppliers who are as passionate about quality and innovation as I am. I get the first artichokes of the season and the first porcinis from people who come to my kitchen door, and I don’t ever want that to change. We have a responsibility to push things.
LDR: I believe that in South Africa, chefs are driving the suppliers, whereas in other countries the suppliers are driving the chefs with their passion for their produce.

So you’re happy to share supplier names with each other?

MJ: Absolutely!
LT: What’s the point in trying to hide things? When I worked in Australia a group of about 10 chefs used to get together once a month to share information about staffing and suppliers. There’s no point in trying to hide things, nobody’s going to be able to copy what you’re doing exactly.
LDR: I’m happy to share anything, but I do have problems with people setting out to copy dishes. And sadly it’s happened before.
MJ My feeling is that if people want to copy they must do it. It is a reflection of your creativity and by the time they’ve copied your item, you’ve moved on to something else.

How are chefs changing the public’s cooking and shopping attitudes?

DH: There’s no doubt that the public is understanding and appreciating food better. All of a sudden you’re seeing broad beans on the shelves at Woolworths. Also, television has done a lot of good for us and the Internet has done so much, too – nowadays you can type in asparagus and you’ll get 1000 suggestions of what to do with it.

Are our local menus lekker?

MJ: Absolutely. Brazilian chef Alex Atala is my hero – what he does really resonates with me. When I first ate his food three years ago and tasted all those Amazonian foods, I thought, ‘we could be doing that here’. He travels a lot and discovers techniques wherever he goes and applies them to Brazilian foods. He is so proudly Brazilian and that sense of culinary patriotism is what’s growing in me – I’m not South African, but I’m proud to be part of the South African context and what has happened here in the past 20 years.
DH: I think South Africa is unique because so many of our chefs don’t come through the same ‘school’ as those in Europe where, for example the Roux brothers have influenced things to a huge extent and you can see it on the menus. We do our own thing here.
LDR: You’re right, they’re all doing the same thing and it feels like they’re too scared to do anything out of the box – at every good restaurant you go into in London they’re putting cauliflower purée with scallops
MJ: True – I ate the same version of foie gras in three different restaurants when I was in London recently.
LDR: People ask me about SA food style – and I say the good thing about it is that you can’t pinpoint it, so everyone’s free to explore things in their own way. It really is very eclectic.
LT: In France and London they tend to cook the same food. I discovered when I got to Australia that they were completely ignoring what was happening over the water – when you go south of the equator, you tend to see more innovation.

Awards. It’s a dirty word for many a restaurateur and chef. Your thoughts?

LDR: To be honest with you, even though it’s good for business, the less awards, the less stars and all those things that we have to think about, the better our lives are.
DH: It’s definitely important for business.
LDR: I think star systems are better though – there’s no winner or loser, it’s not a competition, you’re competing with yourself and you work hard to maintain your star.
DH: You can’t say awards don’t have an effect on you as a person, especially if you’re responsible for the business – but they put a lot of pressure on chefs.
LDR: I think winner/loser scenarios are unhealthy.
LT: From experience, the restaurants I worked in won loads of awards, including best restaurant, and every year there was a controversial entry in the guidebooks – they do it to sell books. It’s bad for staff morale.
LDR: At certain times of the year, it starts to affect everyone in the kitchen and I don’t believe it’s good.
MJ: I don’t want to become obsessive, but it creeps in.
DH: I think all of us here would love to say that awards aren’t important but unfortunately it does make a difference to our businesses.
MJ: True, the Top 50 placement has been amazing for us.

How do you think South African restaurants fare in the worldwide arena?

LDR: I think South African food is on a par with what’s happening around the world.
DH: South Africans are great at the hospitality business and people love our style because we are ourselves, and our staff members are encouraged to communicate with the client. Our guests think South African food is incredible but our people make the experience even better.
MJ: We’ve worked hard with our staff to tell the stories behind our food, to talk about the provenance – it’s amazing what it’s done for our staff morale, and the comments from people have been so positive.
LT: From my experience though, the average restaurant’s service is poor and that’s what lets people down
DH: At the time of the World Cup, the overriding comment I got from visitors was that the quality of food in average South African eateries was very good but the service wasn’t up to scratch.

Do you think we need to introduce service academies in an effort to improve service in the industry?

MJ: If you are employing people it is your responsibility to train them properly. It’s a constant process and we spend a lot of time educating and sharing knowledge with staff.
LDR: Training never ends.
LT: I agree, your people are your business, you need to invest in them. And that’s why you guys have such top-notch restaurants because you take the time and the energy to teach and empower your staff.
DH: I’m in a very fortunate position in that I only open five nights a week, so I am able to spend time with my staff every single day and discuss things with them. I don’t know how you guys keep the standards you do.
LT: When people dine at good restaurants their expectations are high.

What kitchen tools are you coveting or what can’t you do without?

LDR: I really want a Pacojet, there’s so much you can do with it.
DH: I’m currently sitting without a vacuumpack machine and it’s impossible to run a kitchen without it for sous vide-ing food.
LDR: It’s probably the most important thing in my kitchen too.
MJ: I’ve discovered the coolest thing – it’s a Wonderbag and it works in the same way as a Hay Box. Basically, it’s energy-less cooking. I made oxtail and after 14 hours in the Wonderbag, it was still boiling hot. It’s the African sous vide.
LT: My Le Creuset grill plate – it’s seriously versatile and my set of Japanese Kai Shun knives – they’re stunning to work with.

South African wines – what are your feelings about them at the moment?

DH: I think I’ve seen the most change on the scene with the rise in popularity of Pinot Noir – it’s light in the glass and on the palate and it marries well with a lot of different food flavours. I think our blended whites are really coming to the fore and some of our Chenins are fantastic.
MJ: Eben Sadie is my wine hero in this country. I was fortunate to spend some time with him last year – the way he creates his wine resonates with my approach to food.
LT: In general the thing I like about the wine industry here is that it’s not as pretentious as other wine industries around the world. The wines are equally accessible. I never drank white wine before I came to South Africa and I’d say our whites are on a par with New Zealand’s offerings.
DH: Our wine writers have a big role to play. We need them to be more supportive of our industry – they’re so quick to slate our local offerings. It would be great to see more support for the local industry.

With three sub 100 placements in the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants, it’s clear that these chefs are doing something right. Their passion for quality and keen dedication to their craft is evident in their constant innovation. Hopefully they will pave the way for more recognition of South African chefs in the worldwide arena.

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