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Local chefs light a global fire

Talented chefs and South African flavours are lighting up global kitchens, as local flair heats up far-flung shores.
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Farrel Hirsch, Finn Lough

When The Greenhouse Restaurant wrapped its final service in November 2021, foodies with a passion for fine dining wept into their amuse-bouche. For the award-winning restaurant at The Cellars-Hohenort Hotel in Cape Town, it was the end of an era. But for Head Chef Farrel Hirsch, it was the start of an entirely new adventure.

After rolling up his knives at The Greenhouse, Durban-born Hirsch unpacked them at Finn Lough, a serene luxury hideaway on the shores of Lough Erne in Northern Ireland.

Finn Lough is billed as ‘a lakeside haven where the switched-on come to switch off’, and the elegant accommodation certainly speaks to an affluent urban audience with an eye for design. Whether it’s in Finn Lough’s forest Domes or lakeside Suites, there’s a thread of contemporary cool running throughout the property.

“I’ve always wanted to get a Michelin star, and when I was approached to join Finn Lough part of the discussion was around winning accolades for the food. It was a perfect match,” explains Hirsch, whose CV extends from North Island to Singita to The Test Kitchen. “The idea is certainly for Finn Lough to become known as a culinary destination. We want to bring people in for the dining experience as much as the accommodation.”

Today the culinary experience at The Barn restaurant is built on a menu of inspired small plates – still something of a novelty in these rural parts of Ireland – that melds inspiration from traditional Irish dishes with local produce, global flavours and thoroughly contemporary plating.

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Take the dish of Irish scampi, where his play on traditional tartare sauce turns to Asian yuzu for a dash of acidity in dill mayonnaise. Short rib comes glazed in Guinness, with gaufrette potatoes. Local stone bass arrives as a fish taco, plated with pickled cucumber and lentil pureé. Even the braised Irish pork gets a make-over, here wrapped in a pillowy bao with pickled onions and sriracha mayo.

“The produce here is just out of this world,” enthuses Hirsch. “I’m getting amazing fresh squid. Incredible fish from Killybegs. Wonderful free-range meat, and then fresh produce from our own poly-tunnels.”

Seasonality is key for Hirsch, and in the extensive on-site tunnels he sources up to a quarter of his produce: “We have borage flowers, carrots, tomatoes and micro-herbs; it’s all seasonal. We also do some foraging for wild ingredients.”

And while it’s Irish, not South African, flavours that loom large on the menu at Finn Lough, Hirsch is quick to pay tribute to his mentor, acclaimed chef Peter Tempelhoff.

“Pete showed me everything. I owe him the world,” says Hirsch. “The food I’m cooking now isn’t the food of The Greenhouse, but it’s definitely influenced by Peter. He taught me how to create, without overthinking it. And that’s what we do here at The Barn. We start with Irish ingredients, and build the flavours from there.”

https://www.finnlough.com/

 

SAAM, Amsterdam

It began with a Whatsapp. Dutch sommelier Koen van der Plas had a proposal for acclaimed chef Margot Janse and, he asked, could they talk.

“But a lot of people seem to think they have a great idea for me,” laughs Janse down the line from her home in Franschhoek. “So I told him to send an email. I didn’t really want another restaurant; I have done my time in the kitchen.”

She certainly has. In her 22 years at Le Quartier Français Janse established The Tasting Room as an award-winning destination, and cemented her reputation as one of South Africa’s most talented chefs. When she left in 2017, it allowed time for her to focus on her Isabelo school-feeding charity.

But Van der Plas’ email piqued her interest. Zoom calls and meetings followed. Fast-forward 18 months, and Janse and her new partners are putting the finishing touches to SAAM, a groundbreaking new restaurant on the banks of the Amstel River in Amsterdam.

Blending Dutch and South African cuisine, SAAM is “a perfect full circle for me,” says Janse, who grew up in Holland before moving to South Africa in 1990.

SAAM promises a melding of these two culinary traditions, without resorting to cliché or predictable plates. The foundation of the menu is a sharp focus on regional produce, with flashes of inherently South African flavours, from honeybush to suurvygies.

“It’s not a cuisine that is defined as yet, but it will be amazing Dutch produce given a South African slant,” says Janse.

On the plate, the focus is on contemporary cuisine without clutter.

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“I want to do good food, and it has to be sound in its nature. No more smoke and mirrors. No more 16 drops on the plate,” says Janse. “So it’s about the produce, and layers of South African flavours. But it’s also about the experience. It’s about feeling the warmth that you find when you come to this country.”

SAAM will offer both à la carte and a five-course menu, while the riverside terrace will showcase a menu of smaller ‘bites’. Expect an impressive wine offering of European and South African cellars.

While Janse provides culinary direction, and will spend up to eight weeks a year at SAAM, behind the pass each day is respected Dutch chef Jasper Hermans, who spent 14 years in the kitchens of a two-Michelin star restaurant. Out front, Van der Plas leads the service and wine offering, bringing his years of experience as sommelier at the three-star Zeeland restaurant, Inter Scaldes.

South African creativity also gets a nod in the SAAM décor, with furniture pieces by David Krynauw and tiles by Johannesburg’s Wolkberg Casting Studios. Furthermore, diners at SAAM will help to support Janse’s Isabelo charity, which feeds up to 1800 children in the Cape winelands each day. Cuisine, creativity and giving back to the community: it all comes together at SAAM.

https://saamrestaurant.nl/

Katlego Mlambo, Kudu

Over the past few years Katlego Mlambo has become something of a household name in South African foodie circles. He’s cooked in some of the country’s top kitchens, bagged the ‘Rising Star’ gong at the 2019 EatOut Restaurant Awards, and cemented his reputation at Johannesburg’s chic Marabi Club, cooking up an inventive menu of African-inspired contemporary small plates. With his own show on the Food Network, South Africa was, seemingly, at his feet.

But when his friend, and former kitchen colleague, Patrick Williams was recruiting a Head Chef for Kudu, the South Africa-inspired restaurant he co-owns with wife Amy Corbin in London, Mlambo didn’t think twice.

“In my years of travelling, London has always been my favourite city, and the food scene is just amazing,” says Mlambo, who flew over to head up the pass in July 2022.

At first glance the Kudu menu is not overtly South African. And that’s precisely the point.

You’re not getting koeksisters and bobotie; it’s not that kind of party,” says Mlambo. “In African cuisine we have such a vast amount of ingredients and influences; that’s what makes us so unique. So we want to emphasise those South African components and flavours, but using modern techniques.”

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A standout on the Kudu menu is, perhaps surprisingly, the bread course. Taking inspiration from the cast-iron vessels used in traditional kitchens, and the mosbolletjie bread typical in the winelands at harvest time, it is served with a choice of infused butters, including an option redolent with Cape Malay flavours.

For starters, the chicken liver parfait and choux buns arrive paired with a spiced blatjang, while a plate of local cockles, sea aster and basil is cooked in a traditional potjie. Other dishes see choice cuts of meat finished over open flame, with free-range beef, lamb and venison all a nod to South African culinary traditions.

“Kudu is all about being seasonal, so right now we’re coming into game season and mushroom season,” enthuses Mlambo. “In African culture sharing is caring, and we’re going to do a lot of that at Kudu.”

www.kuducollective.com/kudu/

by Richard Holmes

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