• We cosy up with executive chef Jackie Cameron at Hartford House in the KZN Midlands to chat about the release of her first cookbook, Jackie Cameron Cooks At Home, and get treated to a special feast of some of the book’s rustic dishes.

    It feels like you’re slowly entering a fairy tale. A dirt road gently sweeps you through the picturesque countryside, passes paddocks dotted with pensive thoroughbred horses and, ultimately, brings you to an expectant stop.

    Cocooned in an English-style country garden is a stately building etched from stone and a petite woman with Goldilocks good looks appears to engulf you in a warm welcome. Jackie Cameron’s cobalt blue eyes and easy smile belie a steely determination and unfaltering ambition, and she is forging ahead to create her own happily ever after. She has earned much acclaim as head chef at Hartford House in the KZN Midlands and it’s hard to believe the mature-beyond-her-years young chef has held this position for a decade.

    She leads the way to the kitchen where she is busy recreating recipes from her cookbook, Jackie Cameron Cooks At Home, which launched in May. With stringent goals to keep her feet on the ground and her mind focused, the launch of her first book at age 30 means she has ticked another item off her bucket list. She calls it a “go-to” book – it has all the recipes you might need as it is divided to follow the natural progression of a day as well as condiments, home-cooked meals, restaurant food made easy, savoury snacks and sweets.

    “I chose the title because I want people to use the book. When I’m 60 I can do a coffee table book of all my signatures. This isn’t me trying to prove to the world I can cook; it’s the bigger picture. If I can get people cooking better at home it will uplift the general homecooking standard. If people are cooking better at home, they expect a better standard at restaurants, so we chefs naturally have to step up our game,” she says earnestly.

    Five years ago Jackie started writing a Witness (newspaper) column that saw her developing recipes and finding out which recipes people enjoy. “It led to a brainstorm of dishes for my recipe book,” she says. Jackie qualified from The Christina Martin School of Food & Wine and did a stint at the Mount Grace before moving on to the beautiful Hartford House.

    Her eating out CV is impressive as it includes elBulli, The Fat Duck, Nobu, Le Gavroche, Gordon Ramsay’s Hospital Road, River Café, Noma and, later this year, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. However, it is her family who seem to have made the biggest impact on her career and she often makes reference to happy childhood food memories. “My grandfather was a butcher and I have included his incredible brawn recipe in my cookbook. I never spoke to him about his butchery in culinary depth – he passed away in the December that I qualified. I spoke to people he trained and asked if I could have his brawn recipe. They said he used to keep it simple and highlight the main flavour, and that’s exactly what I do,” she muses.

    “I always look back at memories to see how I enjoy eating an ingredient. In the case of butternut, there is nothing better than it being roasted with my mother’s roast chicken. For the butternut soup, you literally roast the butternut and add vegetable stock.

    “The spicy lamb dish is a new take on bunny chow. This is curry as my grandmother and mom make it at home, finely shredded for a bunny or served on the bone. I was invited to judge a chef’s competition in Dubai last July, where I tasted the dessert called umali. It means ‘queen of puddings’ and it’s scrumptious,” Jackie exclaims.

    Jackie is unapologetically feminine and recently launched a super-stylish range of chefs’ clothing for ladies, which is both pretty and practical, and available on her personal website. Compulsively ambitious, she hints at other interesting projects that are in the pipeline but plays her cards close to her chest. Jackie, it would appear, is more superhero than fairy princess.
    Hartford House, Mooi River, KZN Midlands. Call 033-263-2713 or visit .


    Photographs by CLINTON FRIEDMAN