Chefs prove the exception to the kitchen rule

Chefs prove the exception to the kitchen rule
Tronette has ensured that the signature dish, the late Mrs McGrath’s famed Boland cheese soufflé with gin cheese sauce, is on the menu at all the hotels. (Photo: Supplied)

For decades restaurant kitchens have been male domains but these days more women than ever are standing the heat. Meet Tronette Dippenaar and Danielle Adams, who are taking charge of the pass.

The (barefoot and pregnant) woman in the kitchen has been a patriarchal concept for centuries. Most of us of a certain age will remember mothers and grandmothers who cooked while their husbands put their feet up with the newspaper. Clearly I’m talking about the really old days, when the daily newspaper was an Important Thing.

Off I went to the good old internet for examples to expand on this. I was horrified to find this article from a 1950s home economics textbook and this one on Huffpost – from 2017 – which is gobsmackingly similar. Surely it’s a joke? Satire? Or even good old-fashioned theft. That happens a lot on the internet; I’ve seen my own Daily Maverick articles lifted and used without credit on other websites. 

If you haven’t the time to click the links (who does?), the nutshell is to keep things neat and tidy in the home, wrangle the offspring, and in the former, to have dinner ready for him when he gets in from work. In other words, keep him happy and don’t bother him with the trivial details of your life.

So, while at home the woman/wife has been the one peeling potatoes and roasting joints, in restaurant kitchens it’s the opposite: men are chefs. Men are in charge. Why this is the case is a discussion to be undertaken with a kakpraat vuur and plenty of wine. For today, we’re looking at the ratios which still exist; exact numbers are hard if not impossible, in South Africa or abroad, and at executive chef level or down the ranks, but the consensus is that it still leans heavily towards men.

Which is not to say we don’t have incredible female chefs. Margot Janse, famously formerly of Les Quartier Francais in Franschhoek. Chantel Dartnall, formerly Mosaic in Pretoria, and expected to open a new Mosaic in France. Charné Sampson at Epice in Franschhoek. Karen Dudley, formerly of The Kitchen. Kerry Kilpin at Bistro Sixteen82. Kayla-Ann Osborn at Delaire Graff. Give me enough time and I’ll make a long list. However, it’s still not the easiest job in the world, and as with a lot of other professions women have to work that much harder to get to the top.

I met two of them in the past week and while the challenges of their roles as female executive and head chefs weren’t the main topics of conversation, it did come up.

Tronette Dippenaar has worked at all the hotels in the Liz McGrath Collection since 2008, and is now executive chef at The Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia. (Photo: Supplied)

Tronette Dippenaar is the new executive chef at The Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia, responsible for all the food in every area of the hotel –The Conservatory restaurant, afternoon tea, breakfast, picnics, room service, conferencing and events. She’s been with the Liz McGrath Collection since 2008 when she first joined the group as chef de partie at The Marine in Hermanus. She’s worked at The Plettenberg as well, and the Lord Milner in Matjiesfontein when the Liz McGrath Collection took on the management contract there.

Interestingly, Dippenaar’s husband Johan has worked for the collection for the same period of time. Tronette was born and raised on a farm in Robertson; Johan hails from Vredenburg on the West Coast and was in sales and marketing for the tyre business before getting into hospitality. They met through a mutual friend, and did the long distance thing while Tronette was working at The Agulhas Country Lodge at the southernmost tip of Africa and Johan was managing Calypso Villas in Langebaan. When the GM at Agulhas resigned, Johan stepped into the position. They got engaged at the lighthouse and went to Scotland for two years, at the Relais & Châteux property, Kinnaird Estate. 

“Johan was front of house and I was the junior chef. I thought, what better way to gain experience? That’s the type of clientele I like to serve, that’s where I saw myself going,” she said. “When I came back, that was the league I wanted to stay in. We’re small town people but we take pride in what we do.

“Maybe in the back of our minds we’d thought we’d get married when we came back, so we did some saving. We went to an agent and said what we were looking for. We went to two other interviews, and then came to the Marine Hotel for an interview.

“We were interviewed by Mrs McGrath herself and she was adamant she didn’t employ couples, because if one leaves the other leaves too. And that is understandable, we see it, but if you’re dedicated like Johan and myself are, you’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re not going anywhere. We’re here for the right reason and part of the family. We are both very career driven.” 

With summer coming, lunching, dining or taking afternoon tea on the garden terrace at The Cellars-Hohenort is looking very attractive. (Photo: Supplied)

Although it was never planned that the couple would move around the properties as a package deal, that’s how it has worked out.

“You know when you finish someone’s sentence and you actually do… he is my strongest critic. He’s honest, to better me. We don’t lie to each other. I can’t say there was ever any time we ever fought at work, like couples will. We leave it at home. We work together, work is work, home is home, and that’s how we do this. But also, I check his emails for spelling mistakes, he tastes my food to see if it’s good enough to serve. It’s a give and take,” she smiles.

If they both worked in the kitchen it might be a different story. “We see each other two or three times during a normal work day. Johan is currently the facilities manager, the middleman between the company and big contractors.”

As such he deals with things like major renovations, building parking areas and fixing roofs. It’s 8-5 at the moment, which means Johan is home over weekends and public holidays, and evenings – aside from regularly travelling to the other hotels. But he knew what he was getting into when they got married, with Tronette’s different working hours. “We have mutual respect for each other and each other’s positions,” she said.

At the moment, she is testing the water to see what guests and diners want; it’s important to her to deliver this. “For me to come in here and do a whole a new spic and span menu and nobody wants it, I’m going to fall flat. I’m saying I’m like an artist doing their greatest hits, taking bits from all over from 13 years in the collection, to see what works.

“I have the most amazing staff in the kitchen. They’re so eager and that makes me happy. I’ve always been a trainer, a mentor, and worked with a lot of students, which we do here as well. You have to have the patience for them. 

“I need to work to the strengths of my team as well and that also will determine what goes on the menu. I’ve been there for three and a half months, and I see their potential and willingness to learn so I work with that while figuring out what the clientele want and are asking for.”

Tronette’s favourite dish on the new menu at The Conservatory is ‘Taste of the Overberg’, comprising lamb served three ways. (Photo: Supplied)

Dippenaar says her job is a 60/40 split between admin and cooking. “I like to give the seniors their responsibilities, otherwise they get bored. Or I’ll swap with someone else and have them work the pass and I work the section. Other times we’re all prepping, and I’ll worry about the paperwork and emails later. I’m on the floor with the team, because I’m part of the team. It took a while to win them over. They’re thinking, ‘Who’s this small woman chef coming into the kitchen wanting to tell me, who’s worked here for 30 years, what to do?’. There’s a good working relationship. They do push a bit sometimes but who doesn’t?” 

One dish which isn’t going anywhere is the cheese soufflé with gin cheese sauce. It was Mrs M’s favourite starter so wherever Dippenaar went she made sure it was on the menu. It became so popular with guests as well that it became a signature dish. “If you talk about Mrs M and a starter it will always be the cheese soufflé and I’ve put it on every menu, and it stayed on every menu,” said Dippenaar. “She was a very small eater, and only ever ate half of what you served her. It didn’t matter if it’s half of what you thought she would eat, she still only ate half of that.”

The double baked soufflé (recipe here) is a light-as-air starter, and people will sometimes come just for that. And why not? All that cheesy goodness on top of more cheese. For the soufflé you want to use a cheese that would give the best flavour – as cheesy as possible, said Dippenaar.

“A semi-hard mature cheese would be perfect – a 12 months matured Gruberg cheese from Stanford, or we are currently using a mix of Grana Padano and matured Boland cheddar.” 

While I am besotted with the smoked tomato risotto with buffalo mozzarella, Dippenaar’s favourite dish goes by the name of Taste of the Overberg – lamb three ways: slow braised shoulder; grilled cutlet; and pulled leg. It’s served with creamed potatoes, minted pea purée, baby carrots, ratatouille, black garlic and lamb jus.

“Because I’m South African I always tend to go to lamb. I’m a meat eater, and my husband is as well. The dish came from Matjiesfontein because there’s nothing better than Karoo lamb. Overberg is the second best for me, that is a very good flavour, but Karoo lamb is best. You can taste the bossie that the lamb had. It was a big hit there because you’re sitting right between all the farms.”

Danielle Adams, 24, has been appointed head chef at Cassia Restaurant, based at Nitida Wine Farm in the Durbanville Valley. (Photo: Supplied)

Speaking of lamb, it allows for the segue to the story of Danielle Adams, just 24, newly appointed head chef at Cassia on Nitida wine estate in the Durbanville Valley, where she previously did a stint while studying. She returned as a commis chef in November 2018 and a year later was promoted to chef tournant, the tradition of the relief cook on hand to help others in the kitchen as needed. That was followed by a promotion to junior sous chef in early 2020 and by the end of that year she was offered the head chef position. 

“I remember as a kid a lot of distinct smells so I want to take everybody back to that smell that triggers a memory,” she said. “I remember my grandmother cooking lamb chops and that smell going all over the house and it makes you hungry! My other grandma, she bakes a lot. I would sit and watch, taste and steal. At that stage I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef, but by the time I was in high school I knew I wasn’t going to do anything else. 

“The food I make now, I like it to be flavourful. I like my spices and I like having different textures. I remember my grandma would make a milk tart, and I try to get back to that taste ‘of home’ so I encourage my staff to do whatever they need to do to get it there.” 

Adams, who is from Kuils River, got her lowest marks for consumer studies in matric (apparently something like home economics but fairly basic, like how to fry an egg or make pancakes, like a 1950s housewife) but she pushed on anyway and in 2015 she enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s (CPUT) Hotel School in Granger Bay with professional cooking as her major. By the third year, she was feeling it, with exams, practicals until 8pm and then still having to go home to study. It was good preparation for long and gruelling restaurant hours.

For someone barely in her mid-20s doing this job, Adams has had to make some sacrifices. Social life? What’s that? 

“I’ve always been a homebody but I had my ‘good’ years on campus,” she laughed. Ah yes, those good old days and nights of no sleep, getting changed and going to work. Le sigh. 

“It’s forced me to become a lot more mature in a sense. I need to see myself now, not as a young person partying. I need to see myself as a woman in this position that not many women get – and also the struggle of dealing with being a woman in charge in the kitchen. There is a lot of pressure. Most of the time people are not going to take you seriously. Experience has taught me to put my foot down and become a lot sterner. I’m a very soft and ‘to myself’ person but when it gets to service and being in the kitchen I need to make my voice heard,” she said. “It’s actually helped me grow a lot in confidence in general, and I’ve learned to apply it not only in the kitchen. You need to stand up for what you believe in, say what you say, deal with the consequences if people don’t like it. That’s their thing. The sacrifices have been worth it.”

Cassia’s summer menu comes out today (Friday 8 October), and it’s a joint effort between Adams and her staff of eight. “I gave them a month to write down what they’d like to put on, and we sat down and decided this works, that works,” she said. “I don’t like to make everyone feel it’s just my ideas. At the end of the day you want them to be happy with what they send out and they can be prouder if it’s something they made a contribution towards.”

Black mussels served in a Thai coconut cream with fresh basil, toasted ciabatta and lime wedges at Cassia. (Photo: Supplied)

Not having a time machine at my disposal (so annoying), I haven’t sampled any of the new dishes but Adams promised light, quick and easy dishes for the season which she hopes will be busy (so wear your damn mask and wash your damn hands so we stay on Level 1). Expect Vietnamese spring rolls with sweet chilli sauce, mussels in coconut cream with fresh basil, a burger with deep fried mozzarella, risotto with smoked plum tomato (there it is again, clearly on trend and a winner) with chorizo, lemongrass and carrot soup with toasted croutons, and for dessert, a basil panna cotta with raspberry coulis.

At just 24, Adams knows what she wants, and what she wants for Cassia. “Cassia has always been known for its pork belly. I want to make it known for many more reasons.” DM/TGIFood

This writer supports this: Tomorrow, 9 October 2021, from 9.30am, at Vredenburg Park in Saldanha Bay, RLE CSI Projects will host the annual Pots Of Hope event ahead of World Homeless Day.


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