Asked to take time out from fine dining David Higgs invited some mates for brunch on his day off. Although the mood was jovial, Davidâ€™s exacting standards and plating style refused to settle into something more casual.
By Kim Maxwell
Foodies often say they can see a chef’s personality and style in how he or she plates food. In the case of David Higgs, a perfectionist tendency results in intense self-scrutiny and a fixation that what appears on the plate should be “just so”.
Easy buffet-style platters scattered with ingredients are not an option for this chef, who by his own admission, struggles to relax. “Plated food is easier and just how I like it,” David asserts. “Presentation is a very particular thing. In the restaurant I plate everything myself. How something tastes is important, but to me, good plating is essential.”
With the state-of-the-art open kitchen at Rust en Vrede restaurant, winery owner Jean Engelbrecht achieved a collective goal with David and spared no expense in researching a suitable menu, style and appropriate fittings. The objective was a fine-dining venue serving a limited menu to 50 diners, in keeping with the style of the top-end red wines produced by this Stellenbosch farm.
The plans came to fruition when the restaurant opened in November 2007. “In October, before opening the restaurant, Jean and I visited Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Nobu, Le Gavroche and Pierre Gagnier’s Sketch (all in the UK),” David recalls. “Of them all, Sketch was the most awesome restaurant but I found it hugely expensive with rather ordinary food. My favourites were Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, and Le Manoir, probably because they were more my style of food.”
A collection of cookbooks from these venues and those of other chefs adorn a shelf directly opposite the open kitchen. David personally looks after diners in this area at three tables seating two each. “Whenever friends or foodies come to eat, I seat them there. It means I can chat when it’s not busy, and also keep an eye on them,” he explains. A long table between the walk-in wine cellars is also used for a chef’s table for small groups.
Produce from a vegetable patch on the farm tended by farm labourers is also used. “We want to create a proper veggie garden eventually, but in the meantime a few of the labourers are growing watermelons, pumpkins, mielies, green beans, potatoes and onions,” David says. A custom-built French Charvet oven takes centre stage in the renovated 220-year-old building. Assorted French copper pots complete the classic feel, and are put to functional use too. Wide original brick window alcoves frame white and burgundy walls, while two walk-in wine spaces show off South African and imported wines through reinforced glass.
Sommelier Neil Grant takes charge in that department. Attention to detail extends to elegant round white crockery, custom-made by Franschhoek potter David Walters. “The restaurant is quite classic so we didn’t want square or rectangular shapes. We commissioned an entire dinner service,” David explains, the importance that he gives to visual plating surfacing again. Dinner is a four or six-course tasting menu. The six-course option functions as a menu gourmand, offering a selection of what the chef wants to serve on the day. “On our four-course menus, you might have ossetra caviar, foie gras, crayfish and veal. There’s a lot of work involved, so we can’t give diners too many menu options. For our regulars, we simply change a few ingredients more often.” And there are plenty of those upmarket regulars.
Rust en Vrede’s restaurant is popular with European customers, particularly those spending part of the year at Somerset West golf course estates. “One customer and her husband eat at Rust en Vrede twice a week when they are here. She told us that she eats at Alain Ducasse in Monaco all the time. So we create special menus when she dines.” Why the move to Rust en Vrede? “I’m 38 now, and I’ve gone full circle from being in the kitchen to doing lots of magazine shoots and wanting to be on TV, to running The Higgs School of Good Cooking.
In 2001, I started Extreem Kwizeen, a catering business. I got involved in Leinster Hall for two years, and then moved to a management role at Meerendal where I was overseeing farm operations and a few kitchens. But I wasn’t cooking everyday. In hindsight I wasn’t doing things everyday that I was really good at. At Rust en Vrede I can get on with cooking. I’ve realised that the kitchen is where I’m happiest,” he explains. David’s mates, all winemakers at properties that Jean Engelbrecht is involved in, have popped the cork on rosé champagne, so David starts serving dishes. He kicks off with pancettawrapped chicken with a tomato and tarragon salad, individual copper dishes on the side holding delicious saffroninfused chorizo paella topped with a crayfish tail and poached egg.
The laughter increases and Louis Strydom decides it’s fitting to open a bottle of Rust en Vrede 2003, since 2004 was the last vintage he made as Rust en Vrede’s winemaker. Louis now fashions the blends of Ernie Els’ wines; fellow guest Coenie Snyman now makes Rust en Vrede’s wines. Mark van Buuren is the final guest, and winemaker at Guardian Peak. All serious foodies, they provided input when the restaurant’s wine list was compiled. Aside from 300 wines, an extensive champagne and vintage collection, Rust en Vrede and Guardian Peak wines are also available by the glass.
David sits as he sets down the final course, seared beef fillet with pont-neuf potatoes. “Brunch must be substantial. I enjoy breakfast, but it should be reserved for breakfast time. Personally I’m too tense to eat in the morning, because one of my staff may not pitch or deliveries might not arrive. I generally eat after 11am, and only relax by 5pm when dinner service starts,” he explains. Louis swallows a mouthful of food. “Delicious. I’d say this is sophisticated food in the French way,” he declares, to hearty approval all round. David smiles and sits back in his chair. For a few hours at least, he might let his guard down.
Rust en Vrede restaurant, Annandale Road, Stellenbosch. The winemaker’s one-course lunch costs from R100 to R150 per person, depending on available ingredients, and includes a glass of wine. The four-course menu for dinner costs R400 per person, excluding wine; the six-course menu costs R550 per person, excluding wine, or R800 per person including wine pairings for each course. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch from 12pm to 3pm and for dinner from 7pm for dinner.
By Warren Heath