The inaugural Eat Out Conference, held at the The Westin hotel on the eve of the Eat Out DStv Food Network Top 10 Awards with a disappointing attendance of fewer than 100 delegates, was an interesting journey of food through its South African history beginning in 1652, culminating in the climax of the inspirational talk by Chef Massimo Bottura of fifth ranked Osteria Francescana on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Chef Luke Dale-Roberts of The Test Kitchen, most likely to be crowned our country’s best Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant and Chef this evening, was meant to speak about ‘Food for thought, thought for food’, admitting that he is more comfortable cooking than he is at admin and public speaking. He was inspired by the recent gathering of 200 international chefs organised by Alain Ducasse, at which it was emphasised: “I am a chef, it’s what I am, it’s what I make”. He said a chef would die if he/she were to stop evolving. Every day inspires him, he said, as well as the seasons, and their change. Chef Luke showed a number of videos, made by Dreamcatcher Productions, of the making of his ‘thematic food’, being as funky, beautiful, and vibey as his dishes, including ‘Sea’ (oysters on salt), ‘The Farm’, ‘The Forest’, ‘The Test Kitchen Egg‘ with foie gras in its middle, the more recent ‘Walk through citrus groves’ (which included a three citrus sorbet, and Campari and orange jelly), and ‘Red Cabbage Coral’, served in different styles, being raw, powdered, cooked, and as a jelly. While Chef Luke did not address the theme of his talk, being more self-promotion focused, he earned the respect of the audience through the quality of his videos, and the beautiful dishes that he presented.
The presentation by UK food designer Andrew Stellitano and photographer Dominic Davies of sonnets on strands of pasta, laser cut biscuits, and more, went over the heads of most of the audience, especially the part entitled ‘Sensory experiences of the Cape’, via James Wannerton, who suffers from synaethesia, a condition in which two of the five senses are dissonant. Fun was his taste association, via Google Maps, of Table Mountain with pear drops, the Epping Market with chocolate digestives, and Paarl with ‘Gobstoppers’, all of which we were given to taste.
Margot Janse, Chef of The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français for the past 17 years, has a record number of ten Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant awards, more than any of the other 18 chefs she is competing against tonight. Africa is Chef Margot’s inspiration. She has lived in Africa for 23 years, coming to South Africa from Lusaka, and down to the Cape at the time at which Mr Mandela had just been released. This opened up a whole new world for culinary South Africa, the rest of world starting to fall in love with our country again, she said. More was better in the ‘Nineties, quantity was synonymous with quality then! She remembered braais, chutney, mampoer, witblits, South African generosity, her favourite gem squash, cheddar and gouda cheeses, milk in plastic sachets, and learnt that meat does not have to come in styrofoam trays. Her love for food became an obsession and then her career. She travels a lot, cooking in many countries. Her creations all have a South African stamp, and could include baobab, buchu, and chakalaka, these ingredients making us special. She is proud of where her supplies come from, having walked where the cattle graze, and sees where the vegetables grow. She shared how Farmer Angus makes a plan, and walked the extra mile for her, getting the cheeks cut out of lamb skulls. Integrity and honesty are the lessons she has learnt from Africa. She cooks what is grown here, and now. She learnt to fight for good service, for her staff, was known to be difficult, and is no longer banned from suppliers for standing her man.
She discussed the contradiction of focusing on the perfect carrot, when there are so many people in our country going hungry. Guests want to contribute, and give something back. With a fundraiser in Holland she raised R1 million, and can feed 750 children in Franschhoek, proudly showing this scheme to her guests. She has learnt ‘Ons maak ‘n plan’, that everything is possible in Africa. She uses local ingredients like sorghum, kapokbos, num-nums, sour figs, and a salt from a sacred place which is 200 years old, in the Mopani district. The Tasting Room only serves local wines, mainly from Franschhoek. She was asked how she has stayed at the restaurant for so long, and explained that she stays enthused through sourcing, and constantly evolving her restaurant. This winter they changed the interior of the restaurant, done by her brother, who was inspired by her food, removing all unnecessary and ‘intimidating factors’, such as table cloths, candles, and bread. The tables have been made from wood from the trees which were removed when the Berg River dam was built. She concluded with a plea: “Let’s celebrate this incredible land”! One reaction to her moving talk was from the audience: “I came about food and I was inspired to be a South African”.
Hetta Van Deventer-Terblanche, Culinary Consultant at La Motte, used research about Cape food in compiling a cookbook ‘Cape Winelands Cuisine’. Her talk was entitled ‘South African Storytelling on a plate‘. She related that she had grown up in a traditional town, with the belief that South Africa does not have a distinctive cuisine, with only a small repertoire, and that South Africans love meat (Braai, biltong, boerewors, potjiekos), and that vegetables are less important (‘Rys, vleis en aartappels‘). After 1994 the world opened up to South Africa. Guests asked where they could eat South African food, and they wanted South African cuisine defined. She said that she started researching South African food long before it became trendy. She described the recipes of the first settlers from different countries as ‘culinary treasures’. Founder Jan van Riebeek loved gardening, being ‘passionate and obsessed‘ about it, and experimented with the new plants he brought here, laying the foundation of South African herbs and spices. His fruits at the Company Gardens were described as being larger than everywhere else in world. There was an abundance of fruit, vegetables and nuts, which were not just harvested for ‘mooigoed’! French Huguenots added the heritage of offal and macaroons, for example. Rice was planted in the Cape, Lady Anne Barnard preferring it to imported rice. Roses were used for rose water seasoning, as were dried mushrooms, and crushed crayfish tail shells. Our forbears used natural flavourants naturally 300 years ago – ‘how new is our old, how old is our new‘, she asked. She said that we have lost such a lot, and that we need to find our past again. Dr Hettie Claasens did a lot of original research, being her inspiration, documented in her book ‘Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos’. Recipes are handed from mothers to daughters, and therefore are secret, and many are lost, as mothers are not teaching their daughters any more. Pierneef à La Motte Chef Chris Erasmus was praised, making magic on a plate. ‘Find your own food stories’, she concluded.
Catering by The Westin hotel was excellent, from the morning tea treats, to the lunch buffet, especially its ‘dessert’ Sweet Treat buffet of Smarties, jelly tots, macaroons, and chocolates, and cappuccino requests were actioned with speed and friendliness.
Chef Massimo Bottura of 3 Michelin star Osteria Francescana described Modena and surrounds as the ‘motor and food valley’, including Lamborghini and Bughatti, as well as Parmigiano-Reggiano, proscuitto, and balsamic vinegar. Chef Massimo entitled his talk ‘Come to Italy with Me’, also the name of one of his menu options, sharing how excited he was about his first visit to Africa. At his restaurant he asks guests to leave behind their preconceptions of Italian food, and to rediscover Italian flavours with him. He shared Chef Luke’s philosophy of being a chef, saying: “Do what I want to do, with passion. Look deep in your heart. Get the best from the past and bring it into the future”. All chefs must have an identity, he said, knowing who they are and where they come from. He said he could not achieve what he has without the support of a great team. Chef Massimo’s dish of five different styles of Parmigiano-Reggiano was named Italy’s Dish of the Decade 2001 – 2011. He described how he and his team ‘break down old forms, into a puzzle, and recreate them into new forms, using new technology and techniques‘. Chef Massimo brought his love for art into his talk, and explained how he recreated traditional recipes ‘through Picasso’s eyes’, creating ‘Cubist paintings’. Asked how the recession affects his business, he explained that it has hit Italy badly, but that they have faith in their new Prime Minister. His business, with only 25 seats, has not felt its effect, but one must work hard, keep one’s feet on the ground, be humble, and fight to beat the crisis! Chef Massimo described how they tried to perfect the Umami of a broth, adding pigeon, veal, beef, capers, chicken, eel, but it was the Parmigiano-Reggiano that gave the soup the perfect Umami! He advised that one must step back 10 meters, to see better into the future. One must combine history, art, food, and the social aspects to be successful. He mentioned his Tagliatelle Ragu as one of his trademark dishes, one which made the locals in his area attract them to his restaurant. He concluded, emphasising again that one must never forget where one comes from.
I had asked the question about the recession, and was delighted that Chef Massimo’s American wife Lara Gilmore came over to say hello, filling in some information gaps. Lara said that she met Chef Massimo in New York 19 years ago, and moved to Modena with him a year later. She explained the slide of the lemon and the light bulb, saying it represented that even the simplest ingredient can become special, depending on how you use it. She told me the lovely story of how Chef Massimo had been asked to design a menu for Christmas and New Year for a cruise liner. An earthquake in May caused tremendous damage and hardship for the people of Emilia Romagna, so Chef Massimo designed the menu utilising large numbers of ingredients from this region, to build up its economy again. She shared that the restaurant has three menus, one with 6-courses of Traditional dishes at €100, the Classics menu with his best dishes over the years at €140 for 8 courses, and the 12-course Sensations ‘Come to Italy with Me’ menu at €180. The dessert list has two sections, she explained, five being ‘savoury sweet’, and another five ‘sweet sweet’. The quirky names of the dishes impress, for example ‘Oops, I dropped the lemon tart’! While they worked hard to achieve three Michelin stars, it is even harder to maintain them, Lara shared, but it has allowed them to be more daring and avant garde. They have recently finished redoing the restaurant and the kitchen.
The Conference ended off with a panel discussion led by Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly, and was disappointing, with a mismatched panel of Chef Reuben Riffel, Chef Giorgio Nava, The Local Grill owner Steven Maresch, and Food Network owner representative Nick Thorogood. Grass-fed beef (‘Field to fork’) was highlighted as being healthier, and more sustainable, although it was clear that the steakhouse was ordering grain-fed meat. Even Chef Reuben said he had to order both kinds, as his customers did not relate to the grass-fed steak. Nick fed back that the trend in London is that the source of each ingredient is specified on the menu. South America will be the ‘next big name in cuisine’ , the influence on world cuisine coming from the forthcoming Olympics and World Cup soccer. Chef Reuben tried hard to argue that he is in touch with his restaurants, despite being a ‘celebrity chef’ now, but a question from the audience sounded as if it was addressed to him directly, making a passionate plea for absent chefs to be at their restaurants! TV cooking shows are popular, for entertainment and the inspiration. No-shows are a problem, but most restaurants do not ask for credit card details, with the exception of The Tasting Room. Bank chargebacks could mean that the guests dispute the payments and receive the money back anyway. Chef Jenny Morris suggested that the restaurant industry stand together and formulate a policy on booking deposits. The role of food critics was discussed just as it was time to close the discussion. While bloggers were criticised for not being knowledgeable and wielding considerable power, the unanimous view was that blogposts about restaurants must be honest and constructive, to ensure the integrity of one’s blog.
Despite the excellent content of the Eat Out Conference, bar one session, it was poorly attended. As the Conference is likely to become an annual event, New Media Publishing may need to consider a Sunday or Monday for it, to attract a far larger attendance by chefs, only a handful being in attendance. Important too would be to focus on who the Conference is aimed at – at Foodies, writing about Food and Restaurants, or at Chefs, or a combination of the two. Very few chefs attended, and one suspects that had most of those who attended not been speakers, there would have been barely any in the audience, a full-day Saturday conference in November probably poorly suited to busy restaurant kitchens. Perhaps the cost of R1000 was a deterrent too. Such a Conference would be better suited to the quiet winter period. Sadly, there was little interaction between the food writers and the few chefs, partly caused by the lack of name tags.
POSTSCRIPT 26/11: Last night I saw Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara at the Eat Out Awards dinner, and we chatted, especially about her most unusual choker made from a very special wine cork, encased in sterling silver at the ends.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage