South African restaurants are on a par with the best restaurants in Australia in food quality, says Chef Darren Roberts, who has just returned from a visit to his country of origin. Compared to twenty years ago when he first came to South Africa, this country has made great strides in developing its own unique cuisine.

Grande Provence may not have made the 2012 Eat Out Top 10 Restaurants at the awards last year, but Chef Darren said that he respects sole judge Abigail Donnelly, and the awards, being a yardstick for excellence locally. As a Top 20 finalist, he did say that the restaurants in the 11 – 20th positions were not acknowledged on the awards evening, even though most of their chefs attended, and that this is a weakness of the awards system.  He felt that the local restaurant evaluation system should move to a rating similar to the Australian Chefs Hats (awarded by the Sydney Morning Herald restaurant guide) or Michelin stars, so that top restaurants achieving a cuisine quality are recognised, and are not limited to ten, nor should they be ranked, particularly as no feedback is provided by Eat Out as to why a restaurant has achieved a particular ranking.  He shared that not making Top 10 can be very harmful to a restaurant, some of its staff moving on to or being poached by Top 10 restaurants.  Chef Darren was far more critical of restaurant reviewer JP Rossouw, who had clearly got the rating of Grande Provence wrong, not only in its own right but also relative to other restaurants (e.g. rating Salmon Bar higher). He had also got some basic information wrong, e.g. criticising ‘guinea fowl’, which has not been served in the restaurant for years.

A personal visit to Australia last month allowed Chef Darren to eat at Rockpool in Sydney and at the Lake House outside Melbourne, both 2 Chef Hat rated. The Lake House’s Alla Wolf Tasker has been at the forefront of the development of Australian cuisine. Chef Darren praised Chef Bertus Basson’s Overture for being on a par with the Lake House.  While the cuisine in South Africa’s top restaurants is on a par with Australia, Chef Darren was bowled over by the excellent service he experienced, saying that our restaurants are very far behind in this regard. The service is so professional in top Australian restaurants that it almost makes the meal!  The cost is far higher in Australia, his two-course meal with a glass of wine costing R850 at the Lake House, and R800 for one course and a glass of wine at Rockpool.

Chef Darren has seen a marked improvement in South African cuisine, remembering that about 20 years ago his Rivonia restaurant Two Faces being marked down on a top restaurant rating because they did not serve a ladies size steak, then a criterion of excellence! Chef Darren was once described by The Star as ‘L’enfant Terrible’, for being a trendsetter, and for doing things differently.  South African cuisine has great potential to go back to ‘its most exciting African roots’.

Chefs don’t make money, Chef Darren lamented, and cook for love. In this profession, ‘the passion gets into one’s blood’, and it’s not possible to get it out again. This is why poor reviews are taken so personally by chefs, he said.  In this context he is critical of MasterChef South Africa, in its prize of a year as the Chef of MondoVino restaurant at Montecasino in Johannesburg. By implication it ‘cheapens’ his profession, in that not one of the Finalists will be able to run the restaurant on being announced the winner in July, he feels.  To get to where Chef Darren is now, he did a four year apprenticeship in Melbourne, being taught cooking as well as life skills by his colleagues in the main, and at L’Heiner in Vienna.  He recommends that young chefs go to Australia to gain experience, and then backpack through Asia, rather than going to London for international experience. Chef Darren predicted that more European chefs would be coming to South Africa, as the recession makes itself felt, and returning from overseas to get back to the sun.

Chef Darren is on the brink of leaving the country, having been the Executive Chef at Grande Provence for the past two years.  He will be taking up the position of Group Executive Chef of Mason’s, the largest tour operator in the Seychelles, with three luxury lodges, and a further one being built, on Denis Island and in Mahe.  Collectively about 300 rooms will be catered for every day. In addition, he will oversee the cuisine on four super yachts.  Chef Darren has previously worked for the company in the Seychelles, and he has a soft spot for the island country, owning land on it too.  On Denis Island they will be about 80% produce self-sufficient, growing their own fruit and vegetables, having a piggery and hatchery, with rabbits, duck, and milk. Only beef is brought in.  Charcuterie will be developed by Chef Darren’s team when he arrives next week. Chef Darren said that business is booming in the Seychelles, an archipelago of about 300 islands, with beautiful turquoise sea water and white sand beaches, in a country where Creole is the official language. The cuisine on the Seychelles is Creole, weighted to North India, with coconut milk, fish curry, lime, crab curry, and yellow lentils featuring strongly.  At Mason’s guests would experience a  Creole evening, a barbeque evening, and eat a la carte on the other nights of the week. Lunches are a Creole Buffet, with fish presented less than two hours after having been caught.  Breadfruit, Cassava, and palm hearts are local delicacies.

Chef Darren will be missed for his creative French fine-dining with an Pan-Asian twist menu and plating, for his dry sense of humour, and for his fresh thinking.  His successor is Chef Darren Badenhorst, and the two have worked together for the past year, and they will stay in touch.  Chef Darren Badenhorst has added three new dishes to the Grande Provence menu, and the attention to detail in each, and the vast number of carefully selected ingredients, is impressive, continuing the work of Chef Darren Roberts. I recently tasted the soft shell crab starter on pan-fried sushi with sesame seed, with a soft boiled yolk presented in a beautifully crafted kataifi pastry, with red pepper aioli, and finished off with soya and wasabi pearls. Yesterday I tried his new Ballontine of Chicken with a bone marrow centre, truffle of pomme duchess, carrot and cardomom pureé, morel mushrooms, cracked black pepper, and fresh Japanese truffle, an artistic portrait that could have been framed and hung in the Grande Provence Gallery!

We wish Chef Darren Roberts all the best in his new career in the Seychelles, and look forward to his regular visits back to Franschhoek, to see his family.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: Twitter:@WhaleCottage