Jozi and Winelands food heroes get creative
‘This is not a competition,’ says chef Wandile Mabaso to the guests at the outset. That’s just as well, since he currently holds the title of South African Chef of the Year.
It is a four-hero evening at Les Créatifs restaurant in Sandton. Apart from chef Wandile Mabaso, its owner and lauded chef, there’s chef Michelle Theron who’s come up from Stellenbosch especially to add her two talented hands to the creation of this event.
The third person, Gauteng’s favourite wine personality, Clive Hlabathi, has much to do with this evening and with both above-mentioned chefs, perhaps especially with the second in a strange way.
Then there’s a fourth person, from Pretoria, Stephanie Ceronio, also in a chef’s jacket in the very visible Les Créatifs kitchen. She’s South Africa’s internationally awarded chocolatiere. What’s she doing here? I check my menu for chocolate.
Sticky mosbolletjies on sticks to be eaten toffee-apple style are circulating, also very lovely “vine leaves” of beetroot on fine pistachio flatbread. There are cocktails of grapefruit spritz but I have a champagne glass of Hazendal’s chardonnay blanc de blanc 2019 MCC. Maybe because of the said green apple nose and palate of this fizz, I find one of the snacks on panettone type bread, spread with a remarkable cinnamony apple paste, unusually delicious.
The diners drift in, in ones, twos and threes, almost all seeming to know each other, perhaps from having eaten here before. This seems to be part of the case because chef Mabaso mentions “so many of the restaurant’s familiar faces” but many are well known anyway. Even I know who some of them are. They’re members of an international lifestyle management company called Quintessentially that is typically known for putting together one-of-a-kind events like this one. Most of the people here this evening are South African, I reckon.
Chef Wandile Mabaso is Soweto-born, US and French-trained and -worked, who, through extreme determination and hard work, ended up chef of three-Michelin-starred restaurants for Alain Ducasse in France and was given the highest award that exists for a chef in France.
He was in the Cape’s Boland recently looking principally for wines including unique ones from Hazendal. This evening’s event plan was hatched along the way and so it was that Michelle Theron, executive chef of Avant Garde on the estate, was invited to share this evening’s cheffing with Mabaso. She arrived a few days ago and these two chefs, along with Les Creatif’s other chefs, have been in the kitchen since.
We each have before us the starter by chef Mabaso on our long-long table, which will be followed by another starter created by chef Theron. As with much top-end French cuisine, there seem to be a few different processes and quite a few details on the plate for each chef Mabaso course. I’ve learned to realise it’s what makes this kind of food so deeply delicious, everything playing a contributive role for the palate. It’s the real reason people save up to eat just once at those amazing French bucket-list restaurants and find it’s worth it. With that knowledge and now purposely using more and more South African ingredients and elements, this food by Wandile Mabaso is becoming very relevant and interesting indeed.
The woman seated on my right is astonishingly well-eaten, let’s say, mostly in South Africa but also in London and New York and is a great fan of this restaurant.
We discuss our Cape Malay Tuna for which chef Mabaso tells us he uses the tuna belly, the locally ignored offcut that European chefs would give eye teeth for. He chargrills it quickly, giving it a crust of fennel and coriander seeds, with a local sardine and tomato reduction, some avo mousse, a ragout of chickpeas stewed in coconut milk that he learned from a Mexican cook in his New York days, a grape and granadilla chutney, as he calls these thickly reduced mixtures, with a bit of flying-fish roe or “caviar”. He says, “The taste profile is sweet and spicy.”
This is where another of our food heroes, really a wine hero, comes in, just like that. Clive Hlabathi is one of the most listenable-to wine people I’ve ever met. He tells wine as it is, has the interesting stories and anecdotes that make whatever wine he discusses live for us for real. He co-started Toasted Barrels to show off what our small producers do, with an old school friend. Of course, Hlabathi’s not generally the sommelier at Les Créatifs but tonight is not your general evening and he’s been coerced by the organisers, Quintessentially, I presume.
What’s relevant to us at this point involves the Hazendal vineyards of neglect, once flourishing and then owned by an absentee landlord. Hlabathi was able to discuss the options with the owner, quite a few years ago. These were the two options of trying to use the sections of land and vines that were not diseased or, much more dearly, to invest in the estate’s future and plant everything afresh. They took the latter route. The Chardonnay we’ve had with the tuna belly and will also have with the curried lamb from chef Theron is a 2018 and there are some 2017 wines, so that decision is already paying off.
Hlabathi is all for the newer, fresher wine styles coming up in our country and Hazendal’s new and relatively fresh vines are neat as a fit.
Chef Theron is ready with her “Bo-Kaap” Masala lamb starter. She has her masalas mixed for her by a fundi in the Western Cape and this is a mix of four spices for her curry that comes with a crisp round pani puri filled with a coriander-pineapple mixture. To add height, as we’ll notice she likes to do, is a cracker standing up, tasting of toasted almonds and ginger.
The couple opposite me say they returned a week ago from Copenhagen and eating at its three-Michelin-starred Noma of Chef René Redzepi. They were there for his last Summer Season of 20 little courses with “no meat at all, mostly vegetables and fruit and so on but there was fish”. After this, Redzepi’ll be closing the Copenhagen restaurant to pop up all over the world.
When Hlabathi talks about the new-style Pinotage wine for chef Mabaso’s second course, Vereeniging Duck on the menu, he mentions the winemaker, also the viticulturist, a lot. It occurs to me that she’s a kind of hero in absentia this evening. She’s Italian, Clarise Sciocatti-Langeveldt, and Hlabathi obviously approves of her being one of the new makers who deliberately hold off wine process interference, believing that her wines are made in the vineyard rather than the cellar. Of course, her Hazendal vineyards are excellent now. This pinotage is also of the fresh new style, fruity and much lighter than in its coffee-chocolate days.
The fruity wine might have been made for the duck that does come from Vereeniging, the flesh of which is cooked sous vide low and slow for two hours but the jus of which is 48 hours in the making. It is out of my taste world in the mystery of long-slow carcass cooking with masterful herbing and gradual enriching with chicken feet. On the plate is an apple-rosemary purée, star anise-carrot mousse, plus a sweet-sour lotus root and naartjie gastrique. I needn’t use the word heavenly. By now I expect to use this kind of adjective on food from this chef. My table neighbour and I just widen our eyes at each other to communicate stuff like that.
The mention of the old pinotages has me realising that the fourth hero of the evening is quite a woman, one who’s been pushing for the South Africanness of her Jack Rabbit chocolates in international competitions, where tradition and Europeanness often holds on. Stephanie Ceronio is still in the kitchen, often seen consulting, to one side, with chef Theron. For the latter’s dessert I noticed earlier on the menu, there is mention of chocolate “textures”.
With a shockingly good Carignan, a wine I hardly ever get to taste so can’t compare but simply appreciate, comes a Spanish Pork terrine as chef Theron’s second course. It’s a best-ingredients dish, best potatoes, very best pork that goes into the best winelands-made “small batch” chorizo, the terrine in its own cranberry and liquorice pool and, standing up, a crisp flame. That’s what’s on the other plates.
Someone whispers in my ear that my plate is on its way. The plating must have been for 23 instead of 24. However, in a minute, it does. The service is even better than usual at Les Créatifs this evening. For such guests other than I, I imagine further service was called. Indeed, for each two diners, there is one efficient service man or woman.
Only one barrel of that carignan was produced so there’s a bit of a clamour about maybe getting some from Hlabathi. A man I easily recognise, one away from the Noma couple, seems to be the most avid and determined wine acquirer.
On the other side of the Noma couple is a very casually dressed man, compared with the rest, with a stunning woman by his side. He begins to say, to the person opposite him, “How I got where I am today…” perhaps in answer to a question.
What we’ve got now is an unsweet sort of dessert from chef Mabaso’s kitchen, with an unsweet MCC from Hazendal. The wine is a very pale Pinot Noir champenoise, floral but dry, to go with what chef is calling his pastry chef’s Transvaal Cheesecake, with a stripy matcha and basil custard atop, a bit of blueberry gel, also not really sweet, with a pineapple and chilli parfait, a tart coconut and lime cream and some raspberries, sweet-sour as raspberries are.
It’s about to be chef Theron’s dessert turn and I see Stephanie Ceronio extra busy in the kitchen. The wine that’s just been sent out by Hlabathi no one can buy. It’s a mystery, discovered in the Hazendal cellar, from previous owners of Hazendal. It could be a straw wine or could be an old dessert wine. It’s most definitely sweet and has become toffee coloured with age.
The dessert is called Valley of the Hares, dedicated to Christoffel Hazenwinkel, the original owner, who one assumes named the farm. Standing on every plate is a blond chocolate hare or rabbit. Not just any old chocolate but made by arch-chocolatiere, Ceronio. With the rabbit are quenelle or egg shapes of almond chocolate, dried apricot flavoured chocolate and honey chocolate. It’s like super-Easter and people around the table clap.
Chef Theron pops over for a chat just as I have my chocolate rabbit’s feet sticking out of my mouth.
Post-choc people are wandering around, as are most of the heroes. I don’t see Ceronio though and presume she’s gone back to Pretoria rather modestly. Soon everyone’s hugging each other and leaving. Chef Mabaso asks me to take a picture of one of the famous women here, with him. I do, though I’m not that good at this sort of thing. She looks good in the pic but he’s slightly out of focus so maybe that’s just as well, since I’m not writing about great guests as I am about the great food heroes of the evening, as cleverly put together by Quintessentially. Chef Mabaso says he has an early start in the soon-to-be morning because he’s to be working with 300 students.
He also says it’s been greatly enjoyable for him to do a food collaboration like this one with Michelle Theron. What he especially likes about it, he smiles, is that it is a kind of link across the great food divide between Jozi and the winelands along with Cape Town.
I think that what this evening’s done is to remind me roundly of how good South African food people are, given the four heroes there were working together tonight and before tonight, to prove just that. DM/TGIFood
Les Créatifs | Hobart Grove, Hobart Rd, Bryanston | 068 182 7929
Quintessentially South Africa: quintessentially.com | 072 027 8430
The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.