A young chef at the old Durban Country Club is steering this venerable institution into a new culinary era.
By Tracy Gielink
The Durban Country Club is an architectural and social landmark steeped in colonial tradition, as well as as porting bastion with modern relevance. Both the current and historical aspects attracted chef Brent Assam into the folds of the grand Cape Dutch building. The city of Durban has grown up around the club, whose members are cocooned from the noise of two motorways by the pristine golf course (where Gary Player won his first South African Open in 1956). There are shore-break views from upstairs and next door are two icons of different eras: the Natal Mounted Rifle headquarters and museum, and the spectacular Moses Mabhida soccer stadium.
Brent Assam joined the club two years ago as sous chef at the flagship restaurant, the Grill Room. He graduated from the highly regarded Christina Martin School of Food and Wine in 2004, then worked at both large and small hotels as well as at restaurants and a catering company. Last year he won the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs KZN Junior Chef of the Year competition, and he is now senior sous chef at the Durban Country Club, overseeing all three restaurants plus the eight function rooms.
Manning the labyrinth of industrial kitchens and prep areas require boundless energy and enthusiasm, but Brenthas youth and dedication on his side. “A typical day involves ordering stock, being actively involved in production, training staff, designing menus and maintaining effective food costs,” says Brent. “I work around 10 to 12 hours a day, but I enjoy the challenge and we have a great team. Each restaurant has its own dynamic approach: there is fine dining in the Grill Room, the Bistro is more contemporary, and then there’s the Sportsmen’s Deli. Each has its own style and menu.”
The Bistro offers a la carte lunch and dinner menus and a breakfast buffet on Sundays. The elegant dining room opens onto a colonial veranda with sea views and a glimpse of picture-perfect greens. The Sportsmen’s Deli serves light meals from breakfast through to early evening and is perennially popular with the steady stream of golfers. “The Grill Room would be my first choice of restaurant,” says Brent. “It’s where French tradition meets modern industry trends. The confit duck l’orange is our signature dish and my personal favourite.”
The Grill Room is a stately space with original sash windows, plush carpets, chandeliers, upholstered armchairs and silver service, all evoking the club’s history. The menu is a reflection of Brent’s predilection for fine dining, featuring dishes that rely on classic French tradition and time-honoured favourites like prawn and avocado Ritz and crêpes Suzette prepared on the gueridon trolley. Brent says he’ll probably never be able to take sole meunière off the menu, but he has been able to exercise his creativity with new dishes such as Jerusalem artichoke and asparagus risotto.
“My food philosophy begins with farm-fresh ingredients,” he says. “Your ingredients are the stars and must be treated with respect, and it begins on the farm. Each season my menus are engineered around emerging trends and the freshest ingredients available. Soup is the ultimate coldweather comfort food; I’ve chosen one with fresh garden vegetables which create a wonderful rich broth.” He has added linguine for substance and a dollop of pesto, which gives the soup a surprising freshness. For main course he has chosen a rosemary-infused springbok loin, served on a butternut and ginger cake with pea purée and beetroot jus. It’s a glorious mix of colours with elements that allow Brent to indulge his penchant for experimenting with the aesthetics of a plate.
“Winter is all about root vegetables, purées and warm flavours,” he says. “The springbok loin really brings out all the elements and also focuses on the fine quality of locally raised meat.” As for dessert, Brent took to baking as soon as he could cook, and nostalgia rules today’s pudding, which calls for apples to be poached in wine and sugar before being topped with batter, baked and unashamedly teamed with both cinnamon ice cream and crème Anglaise. This young chef successfully combines his fresh approach with the reverent history of a 90-year-old club. And with one of the country’s best golf courses on his doorstep, he concedes that on the occasional Monday he can be found concentrating on another type of greens.
Durban Country Club, Isaiah Ntshangase Road, Durban. Call 031-313-1777 or visit www.dcclub.co.za.
By Clinton Friedman