• Only the most distinguished of Johannesburg’s hotel chefs are invited to be part of the five-star Chef’s Circle. F&HE spent a privileged morning in this exalted company

    By Lisa van der Knaap

    Chefs can be sensitive about how the world perceives them, and those who work in hotels sometimes have reason for complaint. “There is a certain stigma linked to hotel restaurants,” says Raymond Rundle, executive chef at The Grace. The other chefs around the table nod their agreement. Rudi Liebenberg, who is about to leave The Saxon for the Mount Nelson, continues: “I don’t want The Saxon to be known as a ‘hotel restaurant’… I want it to be compared with the best restaurants in Jo’burg.”

    One advantage these chefs have over others is that they can call their associates to discuss any problems they might encounter. This is because of the five-star Chef’s Circle, an exclusive club that exists only for executive chefs from Johannesburg’s five-star hotels. Every second month they get together to network and chat about things pertinent to them and their kitchens.

    Besides being able to catch up, they can also swap notes on suppliers, staffing issues and the like. The five-star Chef’s Circle was started nine years ago by Andrew Atkinson – now executive chef at The Michelangelo, then captain of The Westcliff’s kitchens – but when he started his own catering company, the club dissolved. It was reincarnated this year (they’ve had two meetings so far), with many new faces around the table.

    The newest member is Werner Snoek, poised to take Rudi’s place at The Saxon when Rudi moves to the Mount Nelson in Cape Town. Also present are Jonathan Duiker from the Melrose Arch, Jean-Pierre Siegenthaler from The Hyatt, Paul Gindra from The Radisson, The Hilton’s Frank Salentyn, Jade Sullaphen from the Intercontinental Airport Sun and the only woman in this elite circle, Nicky Gibbs, who heads the kitchens at the Intercontinental Sandton Towers.

    Exclusivity is the key word. “If one of the chefs can’t make it, they can’t send anyone in their place,” says Andrew. Several are missing this morning, including Phil Alcock from The Palazzo, The Westcliff’s Dario De Angeli, Keith Frisley from the newly opened Monarch, Andrew Hammond from the Rosebank Hotel and Garth Shnier from the Sandton Sun. So what do they talk about? Just about anything that affects their multi-pronged jobs.

    “Everything from banqueting to room service has to come out of the same kitchen,” Andrew points out, “which is where the challenge comes in – especially with regards to maintaining a high standard on the menu. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to follow trends, but rather to follow what your clientele wants. Some hotels cater for businesspeople who want a good, quick meal, whereas somewhere like The Saxon has many more international guests, who might want something a bit more indulgent.” Since this club is only for Johannesburg chefs, it’s inevitable that they will discuss the food differences between the City of Gold and the Mother City.

    Their feeling is that, because Cape Town is primarily a holiday destination, it caters to many foreigners looking for adventurous dishes, whereas Johannesburg, as the business hub of the country, is perhaps more restricted in culinary experimentation. To help share the latest trends, each Chef’s Circle begins with a demonstration. This morning the German überprocessor, Thermomix, is being shown off by Rudi. Although popular with home cooks, this is also exceedingly useful in restaurant kitchens (avant-garde restaurant elBulli in Spain is rumoured to have 24).

    Thanks to the sophisticated technology – it chops, mixes and heats simultaneously, keeping cooking time to a minimum – Rudi is able to make a butternut soup from scratch in just 15 minutes, while the rest continue talking. Interrupted once or twice by shrieks from the machine, the second speaker for the morning, Caroline McCann from Braeside Meat Market, explains the not-so-subtle differences between grass-fed and grain-fed meat. “The problem with the local meat industry is the poor choice of quality meat,” she says. “It’s either really good or really bad and there’s nothing in between.” Braeside is a small, independent butchery that sources meat free of antibiotics and hormones from a Hereford herd in Mooi River.

    Grass-fed meat, says Caroline as she hands out samples for tasting, has a superior texture, taste and quality; it matures faster and has a richer flavour. Fortified by Rudi’s soup and Caroline’s meat, the chefs need no encouragement to talk about their much-loved vocation. They all agree that top South African chefs are on a par with their international counterparts. “I think it’s important to look locally for our heroes,” says Jonathan, “because we have such high standards. I really admire Bruce Robertson and was lucky enough to spend some time in his kitchen.” One of the difficulties of running a top-quality restaurant in South Africa, they say, is the small pool of highly trained staff.

    Increasing skills and improving communication are two of their biggest challenges. “Another problem,” Nicky adds, “is that staff members invariably have a completely different diet at home to what they have to cook in hotel kitchens. Overseas, much of what chefs make at home and on the job is very similar, whereas here, many have to learn a whole new way of cooking when they come to work.” Staff members also have to be able to handle pressure, and chefs are renowned for their fiery dispositions. When asked which of them is the hardest taskmaster, they all point to the gentle-looking, unassuming Jade.

    “He’s a little stick of dynamite,” says one of his peers. “A mini-Gordon,” jokes another. In his defence, Jade says that every chef has to be strict about his kitchen’s boundaries. Plates are removed while these close colleagues and companions bemoan the rising food costs. As the gathering prepares to disperse, sad but congratulatory farewells are said to Rudi, who is leaving for his prestigious appointment in Cape Town. Jean- Pierre has the last word: “When you come up to Jo’burg,” he tells Rudi. “You can always join the five-star Chef’s Circle as an expat.


    By Graeme Wyllie