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FOOD FORWARD

Chef Jackie: A legend creating a legacy

Chef Jackie: A legend creating a legacy
First year students, Michael Ellis, Keilan Chetty and Olivia Malan get a thumbs-up from chef Jackie Cameron, left, for their plated beef fillet. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Chef Jackie Cameron is a role model and icon for many an aspiring and inspired chef. And not just in KZN. She makes it look seamless and easy, which success seldom is. But when passion is driving you, you’re fuelled and alive.

Remarkable. Difficult to think of a more appropriate word to describe Jackie Cameron. Award-winning chef. Food sorcerer. Founder-principal of the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine in Howick. “Witch.” We both laugh at this one. “I think a lot of the staff thought of me as a witch and were pleased to see the back of me when I left Hartford House,” she says.

That was back in 2014 after Cameron – Chef Jackie – having been given the run of the Hartford House kitchen as head chef at the age of 20 at the end of 2002, had effectively put the rural KZN restaurant near Mooi River not just on the South African but on the international culinary map. Restaurant awards and accolades. Chef awards and accolades. Things that only come when you are willing to wield your broomstick, lead by example, and stipulate excellence from self and others.

Other-worldly. Earthy. Warm. Funny. Passionate. More words that come to mind when attempting to label this innovative, inspiring, super-creative dynamo-woman. If you look at the pics with this story, you will kind-of get the feel. Her school. Her students. Her food. The mood.

Saturday morning, three weeks ago, at her imposing school in Hilton in the KZN Midlands, it was graduation day. As with anything she touches, the food, which was set up and served by a range of Midlands purveyors, the coffee, the wine, the piano player, the speaker – Wonderbag founder, Sarah Collins – (one of the products Cameron endorses and promotes), the students, the guests, everything was perfect. Even the sun, which wouldn’t have dared to be a spoilsport and not shine.

We’d agreed on a time for me to return on the Monday to talk. To see more of the school, which Cameron had shown me around when I felt I’d barged in, in late December when they were closed and a friend scheduled my visit.

I guess it happens with well-known people that because one reads about them, sees them on Facebook and Instagram, you kind of get to feel you know them well when really, there is so much more. I met Chef Jackie for the first time when commissioned by a glossy food mag to cover an event at Hartford House. Must have been 2011 and what struck me, other than the deliciousness of the dishes I was obliged to eat (one of those “somebody has to do it – glad it’s me” moments), was the time she took to engage, despite a hectically busy kitchen. Somehow, thanks to this, we connected in 2013 when I was back living in California and: more about the day we spent together in Napa Valley to come.

Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine class of 2022 with Cameron, left, and the joie de vivre of a Weber encounter. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“People think I just left Hartford and opened a chef school.” Not so.

Turns out that way back in 2005, pretty early days at Hartford, Cameron knew – shared with her parents – that her vision was to open a school in what at the time was the family home. Subsequently expanded upon, added to, transformed into the cutting-edge multi-kitchened establishment it is today. Where her parents still live, she lives with her husband, Ben Wessels, and toddler daughter, Jasmin, and where eight students plus her sidekick, Chef Andiswa Mqedlana, also live. Chef Mqedlana being an uber-talented graduate who now runs the school’s restaurant when it is open on weekends and the baby food line, which Cameron launched after noting the mediocre offerings available when she was looking for healthy options for Jasmin. 

In brief, the backgrounder to the school’s opening, which could likely be turned into a fun little adventure chef cum foodie doccie, saw Cameron purchasing and collecting and putting in storage the chairs, tables, light fittings and various other fixtures from back when she started manifesting her vision.

The Hartford work schedule was 25 days on, five days off. In 2009, during these five off days, she would drive to Joburg to attend classes and workshops, fulfilling the diploma requirements for teaching, training, material development and so on, at Gray Training. She has recently achieved accreditation for her school as a Gray Training facility.

There was the Old Mutual 50-50 employer-employee fund that matured in 2014. Enough money to cover the equivalent of six months salary. The day after she opened the envelope and read the letter, she resigned.

Then there was the “huge” Mondi loan she is still paying off, made possible because of her school’s proximity to forest, and because what she does offers training and creates employment. This covered the Charvet kitchen range, imported from France, that she was determined to have for her school after paying a visit to the Culinary Institute of America at St Helena in the Napa Valley.

“I was planning to open the school in January 2015 and had five students that first year. But the kitchen equipment was delayed.” She had to tell the students they could only start in April.

With a month to go, and her funds exhausted after all the expenses and delays, “I didn’t have even R10 to buy cutting boards”. She summoned her courage and commitment and called the equipment company, Culinary. Told them her dilemma. She received what would have been an unlikely response for anyone other than Cameron. “They said, send us your list. Two years later they sent me the bill, with no interest. I hadn’t dealt with them before. I just knew I wanted proper equipment. At Hartford we spent a lot of time repairing equipment, I didn’t want that.” She had, clearly, by then paid a good many dues and proved herself.

A lesson on puff pastry and a vegetable tart. Chef Jackie Cameron with, from left, Samantha Conradie, Kgothatso Mathibe, Lungelo Mbele and Keilan Chetty. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Cameron’s game plan when she joined Hartford, having graduated from the erstwhile Christina Martin School of Food and Wine, at the time recognised as one of the four top cooking schools in the world, was to change kitchens annually. “We had been taught that for the first 10 years you needed to be in a new place every single year so you could be like a sponge and learn as much as was humanly possible.

“But working with Mr and Mrs Goss (Mick and Cheryl, the erstwhile owners) I realised the opportunities; that we all were going to grow together. The doors just opened and opened. They really did just hand over the keys to me.”

Cameron went overseas 30 times while at Hartford. On the first, a trip to Germany, within a year of starting there, invited by guests so taken by her food, they recommended her to a hotelier in Gütersloh who each year, for a week, would bring in a chef – in her case, to cook a South African menu. “From there, the Gosses sent me to France for a week where I stayed in a guest house and worked in a French bakery and in the evenings would go out to eat. My first experience was of a tasting menu, which had about 22 courses. People said the restaurant should have a Michelin star. But by the end of the meal, I felt so full, I thought I would pop. Two nights later, I went to an actual Michelin star restaurant and had their tasting menu. By the end, I didn’t have that over-full feeling. That’s why they had the Michelin and the other one didn’t.

“In the end, I had learned one of the biggest lessons of my life. The importance of having balance. The Michelin star menu had balance, the other restaurant didn’t. Going forward, I would develop each menu and then go eat the menu and pair it. I never made the guests the guinea pigs.”

Back at Hartford House, there were more trips. A meeting with a Swiss couple led to an invitation to cook at an event in Berne to celebrate the new SA. Later, when the Gosses sent her to Sydney, Australia, she ate at 11 restaurants in 10 days.

So what does she look for when eating out like that? “What’s different, what’s unique, what’s memorable. What inspires me. Like, when I’m sitting there, what is that chef doing differently? What excites me. What is that chef teaching me through their food? And at the end of the meal I kind of walk away thinking, what have I learned? A new flavour? A new combination? A new technique? A new product?”

Chef Jackie Cameron in 2013 at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. Inset: Cheryl Goss and Cameron with yours truly, their writer-driver. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“A recipe has no soul. You as the cook must bring soul to the recipe.” This quote from top US chef, Thomas Keller, seems appropriate here. In 2013, Cheryl Goss took Chef Jackie to the United States to eat at Keller’s then-five restaurants. “He had long inspired me. When I didn’t have anyone to ask, I would consult his book. I used it a lot.

“We did Ad Hoc then his Bouchon Bistro then The French Laundry in Napa. Then flew to New York and did Per Se. The Gosses gave me this trip as a gift for being there for 10 years.”

Read my story, Driving Ms Jackie, recalling the 2013 day Cameron and I always laugh about when we connect. Our jaunt around Napa while she chewed on her French Laundry problem.

“Mrs Goss had booked at The French Laundry for four people. The other two couldn’t get there. The restaurant said sorry, you have to pay for all four or you lose your booking.” Finally, Cameron found two guys who would take the seats and pay for themselves. “I think they thought they were getting lucky. They arrived drunk. This experience, I’ve been waiting for my entire life, Mrs Goss is being the lady and entertaining them. I’m sitting there ignoring them, focused on the food, with my notebook and a pen. They’re saying, ‘she’s not talking to us’. Mrs Goss is saying, ‘she gets into this zone’. In the end, we just said ’bye and left.

“I do realise that for them, it was not a once-in-a-lifetime like for us. But they were still creeps.”

A biggie for Cameron that day, she tells me, and the reason she asked me to include the Culinary School of America at Greystone in my day-trip itinerary for them, was that she was getting closer to opening her school and wanted to go there, for inspiration. Which we did, and which it was.

First year student, Lihle Mahambehlala, serves Chef Andiswa Mqedlana with a heritage starter trio, developed for a recent brunch. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

“We don’t survive off the school. We survive off the functions,” Cameron tells me as we talk, sip on flat whites then eat a light lunch of chicken salad brought to us. Two days later I am there to do the pics and get to see the students in action. The energy. The enthusiasm. The expertise. Why people love this place for functions.

The “t” word, as in tired, is a swear word at the school, Cameron says. “Everyone has demands and complications. Everyone has a lot to do. Someone says they’re tired, it brings negativity into the space and I say no swearing.” But shit is allowed. “Shit is not a swear word,” she laughs.

Perseverance, commitment, dedication, being focused and organised. To run a team, to run a business, you have to be organised. “As a chef, while everyone is socialising, you’re working with commitment and devotion.” One of the reasons passion is required.

From weddings, first and second (sometimes with a cooking class thrown in while the bride and groom are having their photos taken), to wakes, to team building and baby showers, lunches and brunches, fund-raising events. Regular cooking classes, birthday parties, outside catering, Weber braai classes, “you name it, we do it,” says Cameron.

She tells me about a recent team builder that began with Prosecco toasts before a forest walk to where tables had been set up, with Abingdon Pet-Nat (bubbles) and French champagne. Then it was back in the school’s main dining area to taste the entire Midlands Abingdon Estate range, teams sipping while competing in a canapé-making contest. This followed by a four-course meal. “They were here all day. Such fun. We’ve done functions for groups of 15 to 160. A lot of corporates.”

Every student, as part of course requirements, has to do 40 functions during the year before they head off for their six month industry placement. These events and the weekend brunches held at times during the year all qualify.

Chef Mqedlana works with students developing the brunch menus, which change regularly. “We do a lot of Zulu and Xhosa-inspired dishes, modernised to make food that is relevant and interesting,” she says.

A recent starter trio, which I got to taste – a “more please” variety of textures and flavours – included phutu salad with sweet potato and coriander and a “lockdown” pineapple homemade Zulu beer dressing; isijingi pumpkin and maize meal fritter vetkoek with crispy sage and bacon bits; and Weber braai chicken lollipops with mieliepap scrapings and ash briquette mayo (the ash made from leftover vegetables).

Azi Ngcobo demos some of what he learned during barista training two weeks previously. Inset: Served with a fresh flower biscuit. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Confidence (never arrogance) is an ingredient Cameron is committed to instilling in every student. It is one of the qualities that might distinguish a competent chef from an exceptional chef, which I ask her to expand on. 

There’s a humility and gratitude infused with her deep-rooted in-the-body confidence. She’s told me how during her journey to her school, her family went through tough financial times. “On my side, I know how hard it is to work for money. Like I said, we’ve had it lavish and we’ve also had it very tight.

“As I used to say at Hartford, if guests arrived for a scone, maybe that person wanted an experience, an exposure, to Hartford but they could only afford a scone. For that person, the scone must be on par with a five-course dinner menu. They must walk away feeling the same. So we made a scone that was a real experience. Similarly, if people were coming for a breakfast, I used to think to myself, they come for this five-course dinner, then they just have a simple fry-up for breakfast – just didn’t make sense.

First-year students Mohamed Peeroo and Kamohelo Mokhele with a four-layer ‘surprise’ birthday cake made for a fellow student. (Phoro: Wanda Hennig)

“The level of creativity has got to be seen in everything you do. Some Top 10 restaurants I would feel had it, not easy, but easier because all they had to put out was a dinner menu or a lunch. On our side we had to do, I felt, a Top Ten breakfast, a Top Ten tea, a Top Ten lunch, a Top Ten afternoon tea and a Top Ten dinner. You know, it wasn’t just sufficient for it to be a fantastic dinner, it had to be everything you were putting out. A burger, a pie. It all has to have that same level of excellence.

“Like I got taught, I need to be able to sign my name at the bottom of every plate that I serve. So it’s a reflection of me. If a person only ever has one meal with me in their life, I want it to be memorable, that they take something away from the experience.”

Jackie Cameron. Remarkable indeed. And so much more. DM/TGIFood

Visit the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine website, follow on Facebook and on Instagram

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