He loves the quiet life and is happily at home sourcing local produce in his idyllic Free State setting.
By Dominique Brown
For bookings, call 058-255-1000 or visit www.sanparks.org.
We round a bend into the Golden Gate Highlands National Park and I’m struck with wonder at the glorious view; in a bid to beat the sunset and hopefully get a few snaps in, we will the car to go just a little faster. I immediately understand where the name comes from as the towering sandstone cliffs, bathed in a golden glow, arch over the valley below – it was apparently named in 1875 by a farmer who stopped there with his wife to witness the gorgeous sunset.
Located in the Free State, a stone’s throw from the quaint town of Clarens, the park is part of South African National Parks and is home to a variety of wildlife and birdlife. An imposing rock towers over the Golden Gate Hotel (where we’ll be staying), and I’m told it’s the Brandwag Buttress – a lookout point from where the baboons watch over the valley.
Francois Potgieter is warm and cheerful as he greets us in the modern foyer of this newly revamped establishment. We’re soon off on a stroll around the gardens where he explains that cooking, gardening and horses are his passions in life. His position as executive chef of the hotel allows him to indulge in all three in one place. Francois dotes over his herb garden and roses but often has to contend with the baboons sharing his produce. With a background that includes fine-dining establishments and a qualification in French cuisine attained in New York, Francois was the perfect person to inject new life into the hotel kitchen.
Hailing from a farm in Bloemfontein, Francois found himself in New York at a young age. A friend gave him a cooking course as a gift, the cooking bug bit and he went on to train in French cuisine. Francois also took the opportunity to travel around the States, South America and surrounding small islands, meeting chefs along the way and learning about the local cuisine.
On his return to South Africa, he studied further through the Christina Martin School of Food and Wine in Durban and grew his love for South African food in the dynamic Cape foodie scene. “I loved the food culture in the Western Cape and enjoyed catering for private functions, where each client received personal attention that allowed me to channel my creativity.” After 18 months it was time to slow down and Francois took a job at the Wild Horses Lodge in the Drakensberg. Here he found a home and a family in the owners, and focused on creating five-star menus for guests.
Fast forward to his current position and it’s obvious that Francois’ past influences his great love for herbs, gardening and all things fresh. He relishes the availability of top-quality local ingredients and has close relationships with the producers. The hotel is surrounded by farms, so fresh berries, asparagus, cheeses and more are right at his fingertips. “Sometimes I even have the local grocer on the phone at 5am with fresh produce that has just come in.”
While he has also turned the a la carte menu around, most nights guests are treated to his innovative buffet. By never serving the same dish twice in a row and continually changing his techniques, Francois is able to keep the buffet interesting. All the offerings are made from scratch, right down to the homemade chutneys, jams and preserves. This also allows for his trainee chefs to try their hand at various methods and hone their skills on a multitude of platforms.
When he started, Francois was given the opportunity to ‘rewrite the rules’. He has retrained all the staff, many of whom hail from the local community, and believes that practical training teaches more than theory. Francois explains, “It is scary and rewarding at the same time to give back through training. I believe that every trainee should be an all rounder, allowed to learn basic methods, before they throw in the towel because they’ve never graduated from chopping onions.”
Francois is a passionate chef and describes his style as “meals centred around harvest tables. Give me a roast leg of venison, dishes laden with the latest harvest and a table full of guests and I’m happy.”
Click on the links below to try out the following delish recipes:
By Dylan Swart