“I’m a sucker for sweets… a chocolate monster!” enthuses Franc Lubbe, executive chef at the Mount Grace Country House & Spa in Magaliesberg, as he takes a scoop of just-out-of-the-oven Amarula soufflé.
BY LISA VAN DER KNAAP
Mount Grace Country House & Spa, Rustenburg Road, Magaliesburg. Call 014-577-5600 or visit www.mountgrace.co.za.
This is a little hard to believe as Franc is in great shape. But then his secret is revealed: he wakes up at 5am at least five times a week in order to drive the 80km to and from Johannesburg to meet with his personal trainer. For someone with this level of dedication, you’d think he’d be über serious (he is when he’s cooking), but from the moment you meet Franc, you’re put at ease.
Instead of asking someone else at the hotel to show us around – we arrive slap bang in the middle of lunch at a hotel that can accommodate well over 200 people at any one time – he insists on taking us on a personal tour. We’ve heard numerous times how good his executive sous chef Vasti Wilson is, so we have no doubt that the food side of things is covered.
A 180-degree turn from the uncompromising chef in the kitchen,the cheeky side to Franc comes out as he tells us scandalous stories about kitchen legends like Gordon Ramsay and has us in hysterics all the way around the hotel.
Driving around, the multi-million rand refurbishment does not go unnoticed. Still maintaining the grandeur it had before, there’s now a freshness to the place. The spa, which looks more like one of the villas with its own pool and lounge, has doubled in size and now boasts 18 treatment rooms. The colour palette throughout the hotel is kept mostly neutral with bold jewel accents for a modern look.
The hotel has a high occupancy throughout the year so you can understand why, with 121 rooms, there’s a staff complement of 257. All the rooms are spread out, so when you walk around, you’re struck by the sheer vastness of the place. The list of reasons why people come here is short: to leave the city and take in the views, unwind at the spa and indulge in really good food.
During the many months in 2008 when the hotel was closed and gutted, the food also went through an overhaul. Twist, ‘the fun restaurant’, is where you’ll find everything from waffles to sushi, while The RamblingVine, a fine-dining experience for just 50 patrons, is “where people go for a spoil”. And the numerous accolades − including last year when The Rambling Vine achieved the highest marks ever for a South African restaurant in the history of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs − are testament to the hard work of a dedicated chef.
For someone who loves the outdoors, Franc has done his fair share of city living. He started working at a family-run boutique hotel in Scotland – “I loved it” – before travelling through Europe.
Back in Cape Town, he opened 0932, where they served only moulesfrites and Belgian beer. From there, he focused his energy at the Thai Africa Group, helping to establish Johannesburg restaurants Kong Roast in Fourways and Lekgotla in Nelson Mandela Square.
Franc knew he wanted to be a chef from the age of five. Back then, his mom had left some mince out to defrost, and he decided to make his parents mince on toast for breakfast. The meal didn’t turn out too well but his love for cooking remained; he was ‘the only lad’ in his home economics class.
Nowadays, Franc chooses chefs who have bravado, believing that if you don’t have this characteristic, the industry will chew you up and spit you out. He’s not a prima donna in the kitchen either, preferring to givehis chefs their rightful time to shine. “I get great reward seeing my younger chefs grow and develop, and I look forward to the day when I can eat in their restaurants; I’m only as good as my team,” he says humbly.
When it comes to food, all of Franc’s dishes are clutter free, without the bucketloads of sauces you sometimes get at other restaurants. “Most of the chefs with Michelin stars don’t have any bells and whistles, and will serve you the best lamb chop you’ve tasted,” he says. Franc adopts a similar philosophy, cooking ‘simple food really well’.
Even when he’s garnishing his consommé with micro greens, his unyielding attention to detail comes through. One of his favourite dishes on the autumn menu is the duck.
He also believes that the soufflé is “coming back in a big, sexy way”, which is why he’s added five different sweet and savoury soufflés to his menu at The Rambling Vine. In winter, his dishes will be messier because of the slant towards comfort food, but his benchmark is ‘precision, clean cooking’.
In his trendy lingo, Franc describes his beautifully presented mushroom risotto and Amarula soufflé as ‘mad pretty’ – and his passion for all things foodie is contagious.
Interestingly, Franc nearly didn’t make it to the Mount Grace. A few years ago, he was so burnt out that he considered leaving the food industry for good. He took a sabbatical andwhen the position at Mount Grace came up, he ‘gave it a crack’, thinking he’d only be there a year. Four years on and he’s still here – and you can understand why. “Some people think it’s endurance to live out here, so far from the city, but I think it’s heaven,” exclaims Franc. “Being outdoors and riding my motorbike are my vices.”
Gazing out towards the mountains,he concludes: “Look at it. I love it here. The francolins start clucking outsidemy window at 4:30am and there’s some of the best mountain biking in the country just 10 minutes down the road. The clean, crisp air is the best part about Magaliesberg. This place just doesn’t want to let you go…”