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17 Feb 2015 13:06
Critically revered South African chefs, Margot Janse and David Higgs, talk about the chef’s role in creating an experience, not just a dish at the Design Indaba Conference. (Supplied)
While Margot Janse grew up in a “medium-sized house in a medium-sized town” in the Netherlands, David Higgs grew up in a “small dorpie” in Namibia
(then called South West Africa) where he caught his first fish, a galjoen. He
would go fishing with his dad before school: “When we got home, that’s what we
Janse’s mother would
make the same vegetables every night, cooked the same way (“overcooked”), but
her father, who left the family when she was a toddler, would feed her beer, escargot and
take her skiing.
“He searched for adventure and
excitement,” she says.
It wasn’t long
before Janse was searching for her own adventure and excitement.
Higgs finished high
school, did his national army service and started pounding the pavements on
Cape Town’s foreshore, looking for a kitchen to take him in. In 1990, one at a
three-star Protea hotel did just that and he proceeded to cook breakfast there
for a year. The Tulbagh Hotel was cowboy cuisine. When
it got busy there were whole chickens in the deep fry ... the head chef
was smoking pot under the extractor fan.
“It was carnage but,
fuck, didn’t that just excite you? Wasn’t that really what it was all about?
That’s what sucked me in,” he says.
Video: Margot Janse and David Higgs on their culinary trajectories from Design Indaba
alternating narrative, Janse says that at 23, she decided what she really wanted in life was to be cooking full-time. “That
magic, that magic from the kitchen. I wanted to do this for real and not from
my little kitchen at home.”
She also had no
experience and found a job with Ciro Molinaro at his Parktown North restaurant
in Johannesburg. There she learned how to “play” with cooking but also how to
handle the administrative side of running a restaurant: stocktake, ordering.
A British rock star chefFrom there she went
to Cape Town and The Bay Hotel and its fine dining restaurant. During
her trial evening she saw a mille-feuille that looked like a creation of Marco Pierre White, the British rock
star chef of the time. “I have to get this job,” she thought at that moment.
It was during her
time at The Bay Hotel that Janse became single.
She had heard about Le Quartier
Français (LQF) and
recalled visiting Franschhoek for the day and staring at the menu and thinking,
“Oh my god, they serve rabbit. I want to work here.”
of the younger chefs from her first job in Johannesburg had in the interim
become the sous chef at LQF and when he decided to return to Jo’burg, asked if
she wanted to take over.
It was 1995 and
Janse was 26. Not only was she offered the job of sous chef by the restaurant’s
owners, but a bust-up in their marriage a couple of weeks before she was due to
start the job led Janse to take over the kitchen as head chef instead. “And, what a journey. It became my nest, my home, my identity.
“I didn’t come to Le
Quartier with my suitcase of ideas. I didn’t really have a philosophy or some
kind of picture of how I thought things should be,” she recalls.
The space dictates the plate For Janse, she really started to understand about kitchen structure, perfection and speaking one’s
own language on a trip to the States. She visited three top restaurants: The French Laundry in Napa, Jean-Georges in New York City and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. In 2004, she introduced a
tasting menu as the only option at LQF’s The Tasting Room: “It was a big thing
because nobody else was doing that.”
For Higgs, the next
10 years were about refinement: entering competitions, seeking better jobs,
getting better jobs, becoming involved in all aspects of the industry such as
industrial catering, teaching and opening his own business in
Eventually, he wound
up at Rust en Vrede,
also in the winelands, where a new restaurant was to be opened on the historic
estate. “When you walked into this space you could just feel it, and I knew
exactly what needed to happen there,” he says. This was despite the mould and the mess.
Creating an experienceHiggs describes how a restaurant space
almost dictates what ends up on the plate.
He described the
sorts of plates he wanted to a local ceramicist; he designed the chairs. The elaborate
front gates to the estate were moved so that diners drove through the vineyard
to get to the restaurant, creating more of an experience, he says.
After four years in
Stellenbosch at Rust en Vrede, a mate in Jo’burg asked him to come help out at
a hotel there. Higgs says he arrived on a Sunday afternoon and the music was
thumping and there were 400 people on the pool deck.
Instantly, he knew that was
where he wanted to be. And, so, he engineered a reverse city trajectory from
Janse to Jo’burg, where he is now in charge of all culinary and beverage activity at the Saxon – one of the city’s smartest hotels –
and executive chef at five hundred,
its fine dining eatery.
There he has a
certified organic vegetable garden on the roof (he worked on a wine farm and
never had a veggie garden, he remarks), and the garden made him start thinking
about food differently.
Food trends are meaningless Janse is well known
for using indigenous herbs in her food: buchu and kapokbos (indigenous
rosemary), and sacred salt from Limpopo. She champions nose to tail cooking,
i.e., not permitting waste (a trait she gets from her mother, she says) and
celebrating the food’s origin.
“For me, the dish
makes sense because it’s about where it came from and that’s what we’re
celebrating,” she says.
Both of them are
guided by Ferran Adrià’s dictum
that food trends are meaningless; what’s important is to feed those who cannot
feed themselves and share what you know. To that end, Janse participates in a
scheme that started off by feeding 70 disadvantaged kids in 2008 with a daily
nutrition-packed muffin, and now feeds 1 150 kids with a daily balanced meal.
“We need to feed the
children. To make sure they have a brain so they can think and make decisions
in the future,” Janse says. “Let that be the next
trend,” Higgs adds.
Watch more talks from Design Indaba Conference on designindaba.com.
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