Franschhoek chefs up their gourmet game, learn Nordic cuisine at world’s No 1 Restaurant Noma!

Franschhoek is upping its gourmet game, with two local chefs having spent some weeks at Noma in Copenhagen, the number one restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and bearing a 2-Michelin star rating since 2008, in the past three months. Both Chef Shaun Schoeman from Fyndraai Restaurant at Solms-Delta and Chef Chris Erasmus from Pierneef à La Motte returned inspired and have fine-tuned their menus and cooking to incorporate Nordic cuisine into their local gourmet offering.

The restaurant’s philosophy is on the homepage of its website:

“In an effort to shape our way of cooking, we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture,
hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future
.”

Chef Chris Erasmus, Pierneef à La Motte

Yesterday I met with Chef Chris Erasmus, a week after his return from Noma, at which he had spent close to a month.  I asked him why he had taken the time to leave his post as Executive Chef, and start from scratch at Noma. Chef Chris said he wanted to study how Chef René Redzepi had taken a restaurant which had been laughed at initially for focusing on Nordic cooking, initially not very exciting and then synonymous with ‘whale blubber and fish eyes’ (like Bobotie would be for South African cuisine, he said), and taking it to the number one restaurant in the world, and having kept it there for three years running.  What Chef Chris does at Pierneef à La Motte, in foraging from nature, and in cooking what one has, is reflected at Noma too. Chef Chris has Daniel Kruger growing a range of unusual herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers for him at La Motte,  with only one of 13 items in the salad farm grown, and the balance foraged,  while Noma is supplied by specialist producers.

Chef Chris was impressed by the systems of the restaurants, each person working for the restaurant knowing what is going on.  A meeting is called by the Restaurant Manager prior to service, in which they discuss any specific dietary requirements of guests, so that the chefs are prepared for this upfront, and not told about them when the guests arrive.  The Restaurant Manager, from Australia, is in the running for a Restaurant Manager of the Year Award in Denmark. Chris said that his knowledge is amazing, having spent so much time with the chefs to get to know the dishes that he can cook them himself. There are 45 kitchen chefs, with another 25 volunteers unpaid and just there to learn more from this leading restaurant.  Only two of the chefs are Danish, the others coming from the USA, Australia, Germany, and Mexico in the main.  The rules are strict, and one is expected to follow them 100%.  A mistake made a second time will lead one to be told to leave. Staff are treated politely, even though Chef René can lose his cool on occasion. No dishes are allowed to be photographed or distributed via Social Media by staff or volunteers.

There are three kitchen sections that the volunteers go through, starting with the Preparation Kitchen, foraging produce, and getting them ready. Chef Chris spent less than a week here.  The second level was the Hot Kitchen, dealing with the restaurant service, and here Chef Chris gave more than expected, already coming to work at 5h00 in the morning (instead of 9h00), and usually getting home to the hostel he was staying at at 2h00 instead of the usual 23h00.  This allowed him to work with the other chefs and learn from them, and to show them how eager he was to learn, so that he could move through the three kitchens.  The third kitchen is the experimental Test Kitchen, which has two scientists and a chef, creating new dishes. Lactic acid fermentation is the foundation of many of the new dishes, a natural process bringing out the Umami in food, eradicating the need to add salt or sugar to food.  There is no salt on the restaurant tables, nor is it added to food.  The maximum sugar content of any dish is 12%. They make their own Miso paste too, taking a few months, ant purée, fermented crickets, and more. Chef Chris shared that he tasted bee larva, having a very rich creamy wax taste.

Chef René greets each guest as they arrive at his restaurant. He works seven days a week, even though the restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Chef Chris came to work on Mondays, again to learn as much as possible.  Noma has an excellent Head Chef and Sous Chefs, on whom Chef René can rely while he is busy with the guests, and spends time in the Test Kitchen. The chefs serve the guests.  Waiters cannot work at Noma if they have not studied to be a waiter for three years at a local college.  The role of the waiters is to explain the dishes to the guests. Guests are served 16 ‘snacks’ as a start to the Tasting Menu in rapid succession over 12 minutes, literally a mouthful each. This is followed by four courses, the size of our starters, being a vegetable dish, a meat dish, a fish dish, and a dessert, at a cost of about R2250. The restaurant is flexible in what they serve, to allow for dietary requirements. The Test Kitchen’s role is to add new dishes to the menu, and Chef Chris saw five new dishes being developed in the time that he was there. One of the dishes developed while Chef Chris was in the Test Kitchen was ‘Lacto Plum and Forever Beets’, served with lemon verbena and fennel soup, the beetroot being roasted for three hours, and its leathery skin then peeled off, the inside tasting like liquorice.

To learn from each other, especially the visiting chefs, they have Saturday night ‘Projects’ after service, in the early Sunday morning hours, presenting their own dishes, which are evaluated by the fellow chefs and the scientists.  Chef Chris missed the opportunity to present a dish.

Chef Chris has been inspired by his experience at Noma, and changes are already being made to his current menu.  He has added Lacto-fermented Porcini broth to his menu, inspired by Noma, made by adding salt to the mushrooms and vacuum-packing them, until they ferment at ambient room temperature. This creates enzymes which break down the bad bacteria, bringing out the natural savoury flavour.  The summer menu will be much lighter, with far more foraged herbs and flowers, and some unique vegetables grown for him by Daniel.  Artichokes, peas, and broadbeans are at their best right now, and Chef Chris showed me the some of his vegetables and herbs, which had been picked for him at 10h00 yesterday morning.  They are only using Raspberry Vinegar now, instead of vinaigrettes.  He will focus on only using vegetables and herbs from the La Motte garden.

Chef Chris has invited Chef René to visit (he was in Cape Town for what seemed literally a flying visit in February when he addressed the ‘Design Indaba’).  He was inspired by his experience, and it is visible in his big smile, and new passion for his craft. While others may not have had such a good time, he said that ‘you get out what you put in’. He lost 15 kg in the time, just working and sleeping for a short while.  He can’t wait to go back in a winter time, to see how they use all the preserved foods they prepare in the summer months, such as pickled rosebuds, and fermented plums. Having had to start at the bottom at Noma, he has a better understanding of his staff, yet expects ‘150%’ of them, Chef Chris said.  One of his American co-volunteers at Noma started at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town this week.

Chef Chris’ Noma experience, coupled with the fantastic vegetable and herb garden on the farm, are sure to earn Pierneef à La Motte an Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Award in November!

Chef Shaun Schoeman, Fyndraai, Solms-Delta

In June, Chef Shaun Schoeman of Solms-Delta’s Fyndraai Restaurant spent two weeks working in one of the kitchens at Noma.  Chef Shaun’s feedback was that the simplicity of Noma’s menu, which lists items like ‘pike perch and cabbage’‘cooked fava beans and beach herbs’ and ‘the hen and the egg,’ belies its sophisticated appeal, as evidenced by the backlog of keen diners waiting for bookings. Noma is known for its contemporary reinterpretation of Nordic cuisine. This includes a return to the traditional methods of pickling, curing, smoking, and fermenting as well as the integration of many indigenous herbs and plants. Redzepi himself has worked with the world’s best, having spent time at both El Bulli in Spain (when it was the world’s number one restaurant), and the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley.

“There are many similarities between the kinds of indigenous elements we use here at Fyndraai and what chef Redzepi has become known for in his cuisine,” said Shaun, who felt that he could only benefit from doing a stint at the world-famous Noma. After his acceptance as a stagier, he packed his bags and flew to Copenhagen, where he joined a production kitchen staffed by over 50 chefs from around the world, all there to learn the philosophy and techniques of this influential chef. “Everyone who works at Noma, no matter what their experience, starts in the production kitchen,” explained Shaun, where the standards for preparation and hygiene are exacting and the hours extremely long, with shifts of up to 14 hours. Only after three months will Chef Redzepi consider moving a stagier into the main service kitchen.  Every morning, a group of the production kitchen chefs go out to the nearby seaside to forage for fresh wild herbs and leaves, like nettles, wild rocket, sea coral, and wild garlic. Upon their return, they set to work on their pickings, cutting leaves into uniform sizes, all done on a tray kept over ice. “Temperature is extremely important as the herbs must be kept cold, but never below the temperature of the fridge.”

For a Franschhoek-born and bred native, it was an amazing experience for Shaun. He was overwhelmed by the incredible fresh fish and seafood that came through the production kitchen daily, including live crabs and luscious sea scallops still in their shells. All vegetables were organic and specially grown for the restaurant. A great example of Noma’s high standards was the daily sorting of fresh green peas into varying sizes!  But aside from the differences in product and handling, when it came to the indigenous plants themselves, Shaun found that they were not dramatically different from the plants he relies on at Fyndraai, which are grown in the estate’s Dik Delta Garden. “We have many versions of the same plants, the major difference being that the Scandinavian herbs have more subtlety. South African indigenous herbs are sharper, which means that you really need the knowledge and training to harness their flavour without overpowering dishes.” Shaun returned from Copenhagen infused with energy and appreciation for the wide variety of herbs he has at his discretion, which collectively he refers to as “my baby.” He uses only indigenous herbs grown on site, so management of ingredients is crucial. That said, he feels he has a great deal of flexibility – one of the perks of a kitchen garden – and is always able to find a pleasing substitute if one herb is temporarily depleted.  The ingredient he’s most crazy about is citrus buchu, which he says is the most fantastic herb he’s ever worked with. “It’s got a sexy, citrus flavour that really lifts everything it touches. It works equally well with savoury dishes or desserts, and can be used in anything from infusions to a flavouring in bread rolls.”

He’s also extremely partial to spekboom, a small-leaved succulent also known as ‘elephant bush’, which is very versatile. At Fyndraai, it receives various treatments, from a quick stir-fry to lightly-dressed salad greens, and from pickling to its use as an ingredient in a cold cucumber soup. In its pickled form, it’s one in a range of signature Dik Delta products Shaun has recently started producing and selling on the farm. Some of the others are lemon and wild rosemary chutney, lemon and gemoedsrus (fortified Shiraz) marmalade, and wild herb rubs. Customers love taking these products, which they cannot find elsewhere, home to their own kitchens to experiment with.  “The indigenous herbs play sometimes starring, and more often supporting roles in the food we create at Fyndraai, depending on the nature and flavour of the plants themselves,” Shaun said.  The key is quantity, and knowing how much to add to a dish, and when to add it. Sometimes they are added directly to dishes, at other times infused into sauces, used to create syrups which provide complementary flavours to a dish and even as flavourings in ice cream!  The plants are propagated at Dik Delta, the large ‘kitchen garden’ on the wine estate. The two-hectare veld garden is overseen by a team of trained Solms-Delta residents. It yields crops of dynamic herbs, many of which were on the verge of extinction before the birth of this valuable culinary-bio project.

Today, the garden is the restaurant’s source for everything from wild asparagus to spekboom to makatan, an indigenous melon which Shaun cooks into one of the Dik Delta preserves. The garden is in full spring flower, with sunny yellow patches of honeybush, which flowers will be picked and dried for honeybush tea, and the dark mauve flowers of the Bobbejaantjies (little baboons) or Babiana. While this striking flower is most often used as an ornamental plant, it has a highly nutritious bulb or corm that can be eaten raw or cooked; it tastes a little like a potato and can be used as a vegetable in stews or in salads. Since Fyndraai opened four years ago, cooking with these plants has been an ongoing learning process for Shaun as well as his staff, all of whom were initially kitchen novices. This had many advantages, because they had no preconceived notions or bad habits to break. He is extremely proud of his kitchen crew, who handle the complex menu and its preparations with confidence and expertise.

Pierneef à La Motte, La Motte, R45, Franschhoek.  Tel (021) 876-8000.  www.la-motte.com Twitter: @Pierneeflamotte

Fyndraai, Solms-Delta, Delta Road, off R45, Franschhoek. Tel (021) 874-3937.  www.solms-delta.co.za Twitter: @Solms_Delta

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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