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SA chefs reflect on past year and the opportunities that it has provided them

Independent Online (IOL) logo Independent Online (IOL) 2021/07/29 Lutho Pasiya
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On the evening of March 23, 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that bars and restaurants would be required to close their doors for three weeks, starting March 26.

One year later, we now know that those three weeks turned into more than three months, and that, even after restaurants were allowed to reopen, offering take-out and delivery would become fundamental for every restaurant fighting to stay open throughout the Coronavirus pandemic.

From the moment the shutdown began, chefs and restaurateurs were forced to continuously adapt to changing restrictions, all while keeping staff and guests safe.

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Norman Heath, executive chef at the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront says it has been exceptionally tough on their team and, by extension, it has been tough on their families.

Heath says after going through everything that they’ve been through in the past year, and not having a new menu to focus on, he jumped at the opportunity he was given to come up with an all-new menu for winter. He also decided to use it as a chance to test out his team a bit. Because, if not now, then when?

“We have been able to keep such an amazing group of young people on board. This has been important to us, as we know that the unemployment stats for the youth look dire. Training young people and providing them with opportunities to grow in their careers has never been more important than it is now. I decided to use the new winter menu as this opportunity for us. We haven’t had a new menu for two years, so we were itching to create some new dishes. And like most people during the lockdown, we were using our imaginations and trying new things in the kitchen. We think we’ve come up with something pretty spectacular.

“My favourite on the new menu is the beef oxtail sausage. Using oxtail in a sausage is very unusual, so this was a learning curve for us. But the flavours are incredible, even if I say so myself, and we’re receiving very positive feedback from guests. A close second is the tandoori confit duck. I’ve incorporated some Indian flavours into this one. Other dishes on the menu have been created by, and named after, other chefs on the team. I gave them free reign to play with their food. I feel like a proud dad, seeing my team’s dishes on the menu. It’s been a hard couple of months, but having their faces light up when we said their dishes and their names were going onto the menu, was priceless,” says Heath.

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2019 S.Pellegrino Young Chef winner for the Africa and Middle East region, Paul Prinsloo says building a close relationship with his guests at the Stellenbosch restaurant during a pandemic has sometimes been easy and sometimes a bit more difficult.

“As there are a lot of factors that play on building relationships with guests, especially with a restaurant, first the food has to be presented in a beautiful way and then be of great taste, I always believe these two have to go hand in hand together. It doesn't need to make sense on paper when people see a menu, but as soon as the dish gets put down in front of a guest, it needs to capture their attention, and then the flavours need to keep it there. And then factors such as ambience, guest satisfaction, professional waiters, and quality of beverages comes. And now with the Coronavirus on top of all of this, they need to feel safe regarding their health,” says Prinsloo.

Asked about the new skills he has learned from the lockdown, he says it would definitely be going full season when it comes to cooking, growing certain produce themselves.

“Supporting more local suppliers and even local producers has become a big part of adapting. By saying we're seasonal at Gåte Quoin Rock, we have to change our entire menu every two and a half months, it gets tricky though, but it keeps you on your feet and definitely makes your brain work overtime. And the learning experience of what we have adapted to, is just crazy with the ideas that you come up with. Then adding as well, being backed up by a brand such as San Pellegrino as an individual, is fantastic and the tremendous amount of support they give to the hospitality industry with their global support restaurant campaign,” he says.

Adding on how he pivoted in a pandemic, Prinsloo says he was never a big believer in picnics a few years ago, but at Gåte Quoin Rock where he is a sous-chef, they decided to invest time and money into doing picnics, and it has been a huge success during the past eight months of operation. He says It also gave them more publicity, as a business where people would come for a picnic and be satisfied with the time they had there, and then decide to have a look at the menu of the restaurant and make a booking on the spot, or vice versa.

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