At Geisha Wok and Noodle Bar in Cape Town, French chef Fred Faucheaux combines his classic roots with a love of simple Asian flavours
By Kim Maxwell
Why would a French chef take a job overseeing an Asian restaurant in South Africa? For Fred Faucheaux the challenge to learn about new flavours and understand the philosophy behind Asian preparations and fresh, exotic ingredients (plus the opportunity to work in Cape Town) reeled him in.
Boasting plenty of international classical cooking experience but limited Asian culinary know-how, Fred’s a-ha moment occurred after he was hired in 2006 to run the Pacific Rim kitchen of Cape Town fusion restaurant Tank. When Geisha Wok and Noodle Bar opened in December 2007, Fred was well aware of the benefits of having an experienced team of Asian sushi, dim sum and wok chefs. Days before Geisha opened, he’d spent futile hours trying to fashion dim sum with the practised nimbleness of his Asian colleagues.
He knew that a flaming wok and a palate for spicy food wasn’t enough, but culinary open-mindedness would go a fair way. “We’re not trying to do authentic Asian food at Geisha. Fusion has acquired a reputation for confusion, but we’re trying to fuse Asian, French and South African styles,” Fred says, preparing wok-fried calamari with chorizo, rocket and edamame beans, with a chilli paste crème fraîche sauce adding a fusion element. “I had no experience of Asian food in the beginning. With very classical thinking, my idea of Asian food was a bowl of noodles. But there is far more to it – Asian food appears to be very simple yet has a complexity to putting it together.
The ingredients have to be very fresh and there must be a balance between the yin and the yang. There are rules about what should go together in the same bowl,” he explains. Other Asian traditions also apply in the kitchen. “There is a tradition in China that the chef must cook for the head chef.
So my main wok chef Chen usually makes me flatbread with spring onions in the wok for breakfast,” Fred smiles. “For dinner he makes tom yum soup or chilli beef noodles.”
Cape Town is a long way from the village of La Pommeraye in Brittany, France, where Fred grew up. “It’s a village about 60km from the coast so it’s not far for seafood, but mostly it’s a place for apples and grapes,” he explains. “I think every French family has a tradition of having good food around the table. That hasn’t changed in my town.” This food culture led to Fred studying at culinary schools in Cholet and Nantes, supplementing learning with practical experience working in restaurants.
On graduating, he accepted a position in a Manchester restaurant – learning English as a prerequisite to kitchen survival. Stints followed at the London Hilton hotel (where he met his South African chef wife, Karin), the Zambezi Sun in Livingstone and at Singita game reserve in Mpumalanga. At the London Hilton, Fred picked up a nickname that stuck. “A pastry chef called me ‘mon petit poisson’ so everyone in the kitchen started calling me ‘Fish’.
That was nine years ago, and now my family has even adopted it,” he laughs. Fortunately Fred enjoys fish and seafood – prawns braaied on his Sea Point balcony are a favourite on his day off. Geisha’s wok, noodle, tapas and dim sum menu offerings are a collaboration of ideas between Fred and owner, renowned Irish chef Conrad Gallagher. “We try to use local South African produce, a few French techniques and Asian flavours. So you’ll find duck leg confit made into spring rolls,” Fred explains, shaking ingredients in a wok for Singapore noodles with prawns, chicken and colourful vegetables. “Calamari has some chorizo, chilli flakes and French crème fraîche.
Something like dim sum is made the Asian way; or the fusion way, as a duck rillette with prune and Armagnac filling for the har gau; or the South African way with spinach, rocket and cream cheese.” Fred’s Asian kitchen colleagues Johnny Wang, Jerry Huang and Andy Zheng are standing by at their stations, but Fred looks very comfortable working the wok.
Eating at Geisha is a stylish experience but not one designed for lingering. Glass, wood and stone decor envelops a pristine white space. Wall-hugging low counters suit single diners or couples looking for a quick bite, while eight-seater communal tables occupy the rest. A few noses have been put out of joint when couples and six-seater groups have been combined, and two sittings for dinner may irritate those wanting stay-a-while dining, but then the vibey atmosphere has a full view of noisy kitchen activity. The intention is for dishes to be shared in a group, or to be ordered as a selection of smaller tapas or sushi items.
Place mats have Asian menu ingredient descriptions on the back for easy reference. Geisha’s desserts extend the meeting between East and West with options such as mango chilli cheesecake with mango sorbet, or brownies served with hot chocolate fondant and Asian green tea ice cream. For purists unconvinced about the merits of fusion food, an oozing chocolate French fondant with creamy tea tannins is not to be missed, the Asian element subtle in flavour and green-tinged. Even Fred has become something of a fusion of east and west, combining the best of France, Asia and South Africa. Asian food has crept steadily into his home cooking: he enjoys a braai and sunset drink as much as he hankers for duck confit. And chilli and ginger have taken on “preferred ingredient” status in his pantry cupboard. Who would have guessed?
By Sean Calitz