Chefs Garth Stroebel (right) and Paul Hartmann (left) give us a taste of life in the kitchen at the South African Chefs Academy in Cape Town.
A blur of white rushes past as I step into the airy rooftop lobby of the South African Chefs Academy in Cape Town. Aprons and knife rolls clatter by as a steady stream of instructions echoes out from the academy’s gorgeous training kitchen that’s all gleaming steel and Table Mountain views.Perhaps like zebra avoiding danger in their dazzle, the young chefs training under two of South Africa’s culinary greats seem to travel inpacks. And it soon becomes clear why; Garth Stroebel and Paul Hartmann run a tight ship.
“You’ll need to put a secret camera in for when you’re not here,” laughs Paul when I ask whether they give students a taste of the heated atmosphere in a working kitchen. “With visitors here we’re a bit more polite, but in everyday classes we do put students under pressure, we do shout and scream a bit. It’s never personal, but we have to give them an idea of what to expect. You need strong legs, thick skin… and a few skills. Skills that, after decades in the kitchens of some of South Africa’s top hotels, Garth and Paul noticed were increasingly lacking in the commis chefs entering the industry. So, in 2004,they decided to do something about it.
“Back then there were no training schools where students were actually trained by chefs. We saw the skills level of cooks coming into the industry moving lower and lower, and we recognised an opportunity in the market,” explains Garth, a man regularly hailed as the father of modern South African cooking.
During their years defining culinary trends in the country’s top kitchens – most notably at The Mount Nelson Hotel – both Garth and Paul competed in numerous culinary competitions abroad, and down the main passagewayof SACA there is barely any paint visiblefor all the gold medals and awards they brought home.
“What makes us different is that we are hands-on all the time. We are legs and a thick skin to be a chef.”
not principals who sit in the office and watch the money,” adds Paul. “Students who leave here carry our name out into the industry, so we need to make sure they have the competence to get into a kitchen team and get on with the job. We must ensure that they have a foundation of the basics.”
The basics. It’s a term Garth and Paul come back to again and again during our morning in the SACA kitchens. “Self-taught chefs are few and far between and you simply cannot fasttrack becoming a good chef,” says Paul while putting together a fragrant chicken and prawn curry for lunch. “You need to be taught the principles of cookery, which thengives you the confidence to go off and be creative.”
“Creativity is something innate in each budding chef, but it only works properly through understanding the basics,” agrees Garth. “We do touch on new trends at the academy, but wefocus on a classical foundation. Things such as sous vide and molecular gastronomy are great, but without a solid grounding in the basics young chefs shouldn’t touch them. If you don’t have the foundation, your cooking will never come together.”
So what are the basics a budding chef should master, I ask? “It’s all about the simple building blocks,” says Paul. “Don’t be afraid of the heat. Understand how to manipulate your stove to suit the cooking process; cooks are often scared of getting things fired up. And learn to leave your food alone while it cooks. Don’t feel you need to work with it and move it around constantly. “Perhaps most important is simply learning to pair flavours,” he adds. “Do it because it makes sense, not for a gimmick. Sweet, salty, sour and bitter: it’s all about how you play with these four elements and combine them.”
But understanding the basics shouldn’t stop you from adapting in line with changing food trends, suggests Garth: “Today’s flavour profiles are cleaner and bolder. More acidic flavours in food works well for summer, while in cooler weather you want it more fatty and rounder. And meals are becoming cleaner and healthier.”
“The embellishments and embroidery are being stripped away from food,” chips in Paul. “Nowadays it must be honest, real food.” Bold flavours that speak for themselves – and let the ingredients shine through – are precisely what Garth and Paul put together for our morning in the kitchen. Garth’s plating is effortlessly precise and there is no confusion between flavours and textures.
“We teach a modern style of presentation, where things are natural and not overworked,” says Garth, laying up a perfectly pink – and unmistakeable – loin of lamb wrapped in kataifi pastry. “If I can’t recognise it, I don’t want to eat it!”
“I think modern South African food is really an accumulation of different food styles,” he says, selecting a perfect gooseberry for the dessert. “But we should be using our unique flavour profiles more. When we put smoked crocodile on the menu at The Mount Nelson it used to outsell every otherstarter by three to one. Why? Because it was a flavour unique to this country.”By now, the classes have wound down for the day, work stations have been scrubbed to bare metal and the clanging of pots has been silenced… at least until tomorrow.
So is SACA the end of the cheffing road for Garth and Paul, I ask? “Until the next temptation arrives,” exclaims Garth with a typical roar of amusement. While he might be swift to show errant students the sharp edge of his tongue, he’s equally quick to fill the room with a laugh.
“SACA has become a very good platform for us and the headquarters for all the things that Garth and I are involved in,” says Paul. With hotel consulting and product development part of their kitchen repertoire, not to mention training a few dozen students a year, the two men in white certainly have their work cut out for them.
South African Chefs Academy Call 021-447-3168 or visit www.sachefsacademy.com.