imageI spent eight days in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) last week, in search of the perfect food experience, in a province I had last visited about ten years ago to attend Indaba, and the well-known Midlands area, which I had last visited more than 25 years ago.

The encouragement  to visit the province was made more than a year ago by Chef Jackie Cameron, who is the most passionate proudly-KZNer I encountered on my journey, making it her business to support KZN produce, from the Midlands in particular, in using and in marketing it at every opportunity. Jackie has put KZN on the food and restaurant map over the past twelve years that she worked at Hartford House, making the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant list in most of those years. Last year she left Hartford House to establish her Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine in Hilton.

I visited her School, during my visit, and could see how busy Chef Jackie is.  Not only does Chef Jackie have a full-day five-day a week job with the imageSchool, but did lists for me of restaurants to try, booked some of them for me, and arranged some of the Midlands Meander businesses to open for me especially, despite not usually opening on weekdays. She also offers cooking classes on the Weber to outsiders on the first Friday of every month. She plans to offer a cooking advisory service, to help outsiders to perfect any dish they are struggling with. Exciting news for all her food fans is that Chef Jackie plans to add a restaurant to her School next year, at which outsiders can eat.  I was spoilt with a lunch in the School wine cellar prepared by Chefs Jackie and Elaine, and it was the first meal cooked by Chef Jackie which I have experienced.  The School students Kate, Carla, and Cara also contributed to the lunch preparation. Chef Jackie is clearly loved by everyone in KZN, and is an unofficial spokesperson and passionate ambassador for the food industry in KZN!

Another encouragement to visit KZN came from Chef Constantijn Hahndiek, who started at Hartford House five Hartford H Chef Tijnmonths ago. He invited me to evaluate the lunches and dinners they offer at Hartford House, a most flattering invitation.  He fed back that I was the first writer to review his work when he worked at Café BonBon in Franschhoek. I met him again earlier this year, when he was a Finalist for the S. Pellegrino Young Chef Award 2015 for the Africa and Middle East region. The food preparation and presentation was of the highest standard, and the best I experienced in the week. They are busy building a Tea House, which will offer lighter lunches, picnics, and Deli items to buy when it opens later this year. Working with Chef Constantijn are two very exciting young colleagues: Chef Amoré Botha joined the kitchen earlier this month, from the Twelve Apostles Hotel, and at 23 is goal-orientated and full of energy and ideas. She won the Unilever Food Solutions Junior Chef of the Year last year. Chef Anand Bhana started at Hartford House full-time in June, after a five-month traineeship. He is a Finalist for Chefs who Share Young Chef of the Year 2015, his first industry recognition. The prawn salad was the most beautifully presented of all the dishes I tried last week, and was crafted by Chef Anand (main photograph).

My UK friend Katie Friedman was in Durban for a few weeks, and her departure date during last week was a final push to book my ticket and fly to Durban.  I stayed at the Lambert House guest house in Morningside with my friends for the first two days, not far from Florida Road (a similar street to our Bree Street), visiting imageMasterChef Season 3 winner Roxi Wardman of Spoonful Eatery, where she makes very creative cupcakes and cakes, as well as the coffee and ice cream shop ERA of MasterChef Season 3 Finalist Penny Fitchet. We ate at Market, Spiga, and a disappointing 9th Avenue Bistro, one of few restaurant names I knew of in the province.

imageIn Umhlanga I stayed at the Oyster Box, and discovered the most exciting Italian food emporium Old Town Italy, a large Deli and Eatery near The Gateway, returning to it at the end of my food journey. It opened three months ago, and has Durbanites talking!

I stayed at The Beverley Hills Hotel on my last night, and had been recommended the Afternoon Tea at the hotel by Paula Mackenzie, who imageworks for Vinimark, and previously worked at Harford House. I was severely disappointed when I was told that the High Tea was fully booked. It looked amazing, being designed to the theme of Mad Hatters Tea Party. I resigned myself to the bad news, when a hotel host came to me, and set up a table for me to enjoy it. It was the most creative High Tea I have ever encountered, and I have tried a few! Chef Jodi Gillespie is the most creative Pastry Chef in our country, in my opinion! Dinner at Harvey’s in Umhlanga was a disaster!

My time exploring the food and beverage aspects of the Midlands Meander was short, the whole area being 80 km long, and its roads in less than desirable condition, giving a new meaning to ‘potholes‘! I did imagepop in at Terbodore Coffee Roasters, meeting owner and founder Marian Mackaskill, knowing the brand from its roastery outside Franschhoek and its success in the Cape. Abingdon Wines opened imagefor me especially, and as the first KZN wine estate and housing the KZN School of Wine is an exciting destination on the Meander. Last year’s Eat Out Best Country Restaurant Café Bloom was disappointing, from my brief visit! A blogpost about the Midlands Meander will follow.

imageI had lunch at Nicolson’s Country Café in Hilton, and dinner at Trafford’s in Pietermaritzburg, where I was also accommodated. Trafford’s Chef Kayla Osborn is the youngest chef I encountered and probably the most goal-orientated in the province.  At 22 imageshe has run Trafford’s for three years already, is a Finalist for the Unilever Food Solutions Junior Chef of the Year 2015, and is striving to open her own restaurant. Reviews of both restaurants will follow.

After one week in KZN my impressions are as follows:

*   There is very little fine-dining to be found in KZN, and only Hartford House does it close to perfection. I was told that KZNers like casual family-orientated eating, and that is why Italian restaurants are particularly popular in the province.

*   KZNers are early eaters, going out at 18h30, compared to Capetonians, who book a table for up to 90 minutes later.

*   Even though the Midlands is a store-house of organic and natural produce, and is proudly sourced by top restaurants, it has not generally raised the standard of the restaurants in KZN. Cape Town and the Winelands region are lauded for the many fine restaurants, and the good quality produce is attributed to this success, but this does not appear to be the case in KZN.

*   What is exciting is the young talent in KZN, with a number of young and goal-driven chefs, whose names have been mentioned above. It is nice to see so many young female chefs in particular! The Jackie Cameron School of Food and Wine will add chefs to the province’s restaurants, but they will have to wait a while, as the first students will only graduate in October next year. They are sure to be employed at top establishments as soon as they become available.

*   Prices in KZN restaurants (with the exception of Harvey’s) are unbelievably reasonable, even for its wines, so there is no reason for KZNers to not eat out.

*   While some chefs feel left out and invisible in national restaurant award evaluations, they recognize that the Cape is the centre of the food universe in our country. It is said with respect, without jealousy.  Restaurant and food trends in the Cape are studied and evaluated, and adapted in their restaurants in KZN.

*   KZNers are extremely nice, friendly, and generous, I experienced, with only one exception. Service in restaurants and shops reflects this too, although I experienced some new waiters who were keen but not yet well-trained, the stretching across the patron to lay cutlery on the other side being evident in the province too. The most natural, near- perfect service I experienced was from Courtney at Nicolson’s Country Café in Hilton.

*   Restaurant interiors generally were disappointing, seeming stuck in time, and not felt to be important in the total dining experience.

*   Restaurant lighting tends to be low at night, for the romantic touch, a dilemma and challenge for photography. However all made a plan to set up extra lights for the photographs of dinner dishes.

*   I did not rent a car, and in Durban traveling with Uber was fantastic, the same friendly drivers regularly picking one up. I must commend the friendliness of Ronnie in particular. It is a pity that Uber does not operate beyond Hillcrest in KZN. Transfer services to get to the Midlands and back are very expensive by comparison.

*   I have returned to Cape Town with wonderful compliments about my food photographs, and am delighted that my recent investment in my iPhone 6 has paid off. One chef in KZN could not believe that I only use an iPhone, and that earlier photographs he had seen of my trip to Europe and the UK were taken on my previous iPhone 4! Those that own Samsung phones, said to have better cameras, seem disappointed that their photographs are not of the same quality.

*   Once again I realized what a wonderful set of Facebook friends I have, who ‘traveled’ with me on my Food tour, so enthusiastic with their feedback, and many telling me that they will visit KZN on their next holiday!

*   I found that most chefs are Facebookers, and some do Instagram too. I encouraged them to also post on Twitter, an especially good medium for restaurants.

I must admit that I have become so proudly-Cape that no other province or region would entice me to visit it. The coincidental availability of Katie and Chef Jackie last week, and the invitation by Chef Constantijn, led me to book a trip which has changed my perception about KZN, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. There are a number of young chefs whose progress I will be following, being very impressed with their passion and love for their craft. Instead of becoming a European swallow next Cape winter, I have decided to come to KZN instead, having enjoyed the most wonderful moderate weather of 20 – 25°C, and such kindness and generosity!

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Tel (021) 433-2100 Twitter:@WhaleCottage  Facebook:  click here