Meet four of the country’s most talented chefs, winners of the Unilever Foodsolutions Chef of the Year competition in the categories of By Invitation Only, Senior, Junior and Ethnic
Mystery baskets gave way to creative and delicious dishes at the recent Unilever Foodsolutions Chef of the Year competition, which saw top chefs from around the country pitting their skills against each other in what has become one of the most esteemed culinary awards. For the first time there were four exciting categories in the competition: By Invitation Only, Senior, Junior and Ethnic chefs.
In the By Invitation Only section, six of the country’s best chefs were handpicked to participate. Reuben Riffel of Reuben’s in Franschhoek won the category – and R30000 – for his three-course meal from his mystery basket of impala, crocodile, fresh tuna, crayfish, Robertson’s Exotic Thai Seasoning, Knorr Demi Glace Sauce and Carté d’Or Brownie Mix. His menu included a starter of Thaispiced crayfish broth with crayfish asparagus and vanilla salad, tuna soy and chevin tartare, a main course of crocodile kebab with fig-wrapped impala, Italian-style wild mushroom mielie meal, and sage and honeyroasted butternut crème, and for dessert a white chocolate panna cotta with lime tequila syrup, dark fondant, rhubarb and strawberry.
In the Senior category, Cape Town chef Bertus Basson of All Things Culinary took first place, a R10 000 cash prize and the overall title of Unilever Foodsolutions Chef of the Year 2007. Bertus prepared oil-poached salmon, honey and soy-seared scallops and scallop roe sauce; lamb and spinach, tomatobraised crocodile, dumplings and a panache of vegetables, and chocolate tarte, yoghurt and citrus parfait. The mystery basket comprised Knorr Honey and Soy Sauce, Knorr Tomato Pronto, Carté d’Or Yoghurt Fridge Cake Mix, Robertson’s Zesty Lemon Pepper Seasoning, crocodile, lamb ribs, scallops and Scottish salmon. Candice-Ann Phillip of The Saxon Boutique Hotel & Spa in Johannesburg was placed second, winning R6 000, and Albert van der Loo of Suncoast Casino in Durban came third, winning R4 000.
The Junior Chef of the Year was won by Jodi-Ann Palmer of Nando’s International, Johannesburg, who won R6 000. The mystery basket comprised Knorr Demi Glace, Robertson’s Exotic Thai Seasoning, Carté d’Or Mango Apricot Sauce, Knorr Mash Flakes, crocodile, ostrich fillet, prawns and mussels.
Jodi- Ann prepared seared ostrich with a pumpkin custard and jus, bisquepoached mussel gnocchi with sautéed prawn meat and cured crocodile tian, finishing with a mango and apricot soufflé with amarula fridge cake and a mélange of seasonal fruit. In second place was Brent Mossop of Le Franschhoek Hotel in the Cape who won R4 000, and in third place was Nkosikhona Manqele of Riverside hotel in Durban, who won R2 000. The category of Ethnic Chef of the Year was won by Nerita Bharuth of Fedics Grand West Casino, Cape Town with Thembelihle Ngotho of Murata Catering, Durban coming second and Mario Sebia of Stonehill restaurant, Cape Town taking third place. Nerita prepared a lamb roulade served with marogo and spicy tomato sauce, and seared ostrich fillet served with sautéed potatoes, caramelised onions and spicy barbecue chicken livers. In the mystery basket was Robertson’s Jikelele Steak and Chops Spice, Knorr Smoky BBQ Sauce, Knorr Tomato Pronto, Robertson’s Veggie Seasoning, chicken livers, lamb shoulder and ostrich fillet. The winner walked away with R6 000, second prize was R4 000 and third prize R2 000.
UNILEVER BY INVITATION ONLY WINNER REUBEN RIFFEL OF REUBEN’S IN FRANSCHHOEK
Aside from winning, what was the highlight of the Unilever competition? It was my first cooking competition, and I liked competing and cooking against the clock.
What was the pressure in the competition like? How do you get over such high-pressure situations? Situations in our kitchen are more definitive of real pressure, so I’m more than used to cooking like that.
What is your food philosophy? As chefs we need to be close to nature and understand produce, and to make sure we don’t disguise or alter natural flavours.
What excites you about the kitchen? It’s a live show, almost theatre, so it’s a rush, and satisfying paying customers always makes me feel great.
What are your current favourite food trends? I don’t follow trends, but at the moment we love using world spices in our food.
What is your ultimate comfort food? Roast chicken with sweet pumpkin, and tomato bredie.
Your best cooking advice? Learn the process of cooking food, find out what happens when food cooks, and what to do to improve flavour through cooking techniques.
What was the last good cookbook you read? Good Food by Neil Perry.
Which three people would you most love to cook for? Anyone who’s never eaten in a restaurant.
And which three people would you dislike cooking for? Any wannabe celebrity.
What would you still like to do career-wise? Open a restaurant that can truly be described as South African.
What do you cook when you’re at home? Roast chicken and sweet pumpkin – you just can’t beat it.
What’s your favourite quick fix meal? Fried egg sandwich with avocado, mayonnaise and lettuce.
UNILEVER SENIOR CHEF OF THE YEAR, BERTUS BASSON OF ALL THINGS CULINARY IN CAPE TOWN
What has been the highlight of your career? Competing in the 2007 Bocuse D’or competition in Lyon, France.
Aside from winning, what was the highlight of the Unilever competition? The after-party – all the Unilever chefs are awesome and it’s great to socialise with them.
What was the pressure in the competition like? How do you get over such high-pressure situations? What pressure? It’s only food.
What excites you about the kitchen? There are two things that excite me – firstly cooking, just cooking. Secondly I like the transfer of knowledge and skill between chefs. We are an awesome community that doesn’t mind sharing experiences and secrets.
What are your current favourite food trends? I like natural food, keeping it simple; rather take away from a plate than add to it.
Your favourite restaurant? So many to choose from – Jardines, The Showroom, The Tasting Room and Caveau in Cape Town.
What is your ultimate comfort food? My mother’s oxtail.
Your best cooking advice? Keep it simple, never over-complicate things, and always taste – if it is not good enough for you it won’t be for anyone else.
What are the most recent good foodie books you’ve read? White Slave by Marco Pierre White and Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain.
Which three people would you most love to cook for? I’d like to cook for Nelson Mandela, my future wife (when I meet her), and the Kings of Leon (the whole band).
What would you still like to do career-wise? Open a restaurant, which is happening on November 1 on a wine property called Hidden Valley.
What do you cook when you’re off duty? Cheese on toast, and anything that’s ready in 3,5 seconds.
ETHNIC CHEF OF THE YEAR, NERITA BHARUTH OF FEDICS GRAND WEST CASINO, CAPE TOWN
What has been the highlight of your career? Entering competitions and winning, meeting the competitors and finding out their thoughts about the food industry.
Aside from winning, what was the highlight of the Unilever competition? Realising I was the youngest competitor and interacting with the other chefs. Damn – they sure can dance!
What was the pressure in the competition like? How do you get over such high-pressure situations? I’m not used to having cameras in my face all the time and having people ask me questions while I cook. All in all, I just took it as it came.
What was the easiest ingredient to work with in the competition? Ostrich fillet.
What is your food philosophy? There’s nothing better than old school; just zest it up a bit.
What excites you about the kitchen? You can set your imagination free when creating new dishes.
What are your current favourite food trends? To cook simply with attention to taste and flavours.
Your favourite restaurant? Societi Bistro at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
What is your ultimate comfort food? Believe it or not, chinafruit (cured prunes)!
Your best cooking advice? Always taste your food and always make your food with love.
What was the last good cookbook you read? Modern South African Cuisine by Garth Stroebel.
What would you still like to do career-wise? I’d like to study further and one day open my own restaurant.
UNILEVER JUNIOR CHEF OF THE YEAR, JODI-ANN PALMER OF NANDO’S INTERNATIONAL
What has been the highlight of your career? Representing South Africa at the Hans Bueschkens Junior World Challenge in New Zealand in 2006.
Aside from winning, what was the highlight of the Unilever competition? The networking opportunity. I think that culinary competitions are fabulous for networking with like-minded, driven people in the industry.
What was the pressure in the competition like? How do you get over such high-pressure situations? I love the pressure – I think it pushes new boundaries and allows one to be extremely creative and showcase your skills. I need to spend a few hours focusing before the competition. I believe that on the day the person who wants to win the most will do so.
What was the easiest ingredient to work with in the competition? The potato flakes – there are a thousand things you can do with them. I used them to make a super fast and tasty gnocchi.
What is your food philosophy? Keep it simple – I think people in general try to overcomplicate food and that this ends up confusing the palate. I think ingredients should be utilised at their optimum quality and used in such a way that they are able to speak for themselves in a dish.
What are your current favourite food trends? Fresh, clean and wholesome foods.
Your favourite restaurant? The French Laundry in the Napa Valley in California. I worked there for the first half of this year and it was incredible!
What is your ultimate comfort food? My dad’s “famous” oxtail with creamy mashed potatoes and a glass of great red wine.
Your best cooking advice? Season, season, season and season again.
What is the last good cookbook you read? The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller.
What would you still like to do career-wise? Push boundaries in the industry.
What do you cook when you’re off duty? Slow-braised dishes, soups and breads.
SEAN CALITZ and ROELENE PRINSLOO