Indeed, rumour round restaurant refrigerators has it that local froopies – arguably a stir-crazy bunch – are, even now, staking out SA’s super chefs. They are ready toss their knickers onto the hobs of hunky chefs like Bruce Robertson, Dario d’Angeli and Reuben Riffel, and are regularly seen hovering around steaming trash as they wait for happening kitchens to close.
I am absolutely serious. Froopies are all around us. An idol of gastronomic proportions – who insists, for safety’s sake, on remaining anonymous – told me that one of his more ardent admirers, clearly whipped into a frenzy, recently offered to tenderise his meat and even, to whisk his sauce for him. Indeed, froopies will go to great lengths to flambé their fervour.
I, let it be known, do not consider myself a froopie. However, when the opportunity to cook with the country’s doyenne of dishes arose, my heart – I concede – skipped a beat or ten.
Le Quartier Français’s Margot Janse – dubbed by my star-struck friend, Katherine as Dame Margot Fondant – is SA’s answer to Nigella Lawson. Except she is trim, blonde, funnier, smarter and more Dutch than Lawson, who is English. In fact, they are nothing alike, apart from the fact that they are both women who cook brilliantly. Actually, since Nigella has never cooked for me, I cannot personally attest to her dexterity in the kitchen. So it is settled then: Margot is best. And, I believe, if you are going to learn, learn from the best.
Clearly, I am not the only one who subscribes to this philosophy. The afternoon-long Cooking With The Chef Courses, arranged by Susan Huxter’s much applauded Relais & Chateaux hotel in Franschhoek for the first time in the winter of 2008, were booked out within days of being announced. Foodies, froopies and cookies clamoured to participate. The cost of the approximately four-hour experience – R1 500 per person – did nothing, it seems, to diminish demand. In fact, many, including half of those who attended the course on the same day as my husband and I, flew to an exceptionally stormy Cape in mid-winter from all over of the country especially for the occasion.
And why not? The list of local and international awards won by Margot and the Tasting Room, which is the restaurant at Le Quartier Français, is longer than an inventory of Jacob Zuma’s friends. And once you have tasted Margot’s food, you cannot help but wonder if there is not some otherworldly conjuring involved in what she does. For sure, you have to see how it happens for yourself. And, after all, if there is nothing paranormal about it, there is always the chance that you might learn to replicate at least some of the magic?
The culinary class is held in Huxter’s home, which is a small Franschhoek block away from the well-known hotel and restaurant. The kitchen was recently renovated, purposely to cater for cookery courses and demonstrations, and as we – six wide-eyed and eager students clutched glasses of bubbly, which were subtly topped up the entire afternoon – gathered around Margot and Le Quartier (ex) head chef, Chris Erasmus to begin, the room was heavy with apprehension.
Or was it just me?I know my Nederlandse husband – who wasted no time engaging his pretty blonde countrywoman in some cosy double Dutch over the massive butcher’s block – is infinitely more skilled in the kitchen than I. And our fellow classmates – neatly double bound and professional looking in their crisp white ‘I cooked at Le Quartier Français’ aprons (while I tied myself up in knots several times before I got it right) – looked even more proficient and experienced than he. One pair modestly informed us that they had recently returned from an extensive cookery tour of Tuscany. Further more, they had cooked their way through Provence the year previously.
Just how much of an idiot will I make of myself, I wondered, paging through the 18-recipe schedule in front of me, all of which we were to prepare that afternoon. How long will it be before I lop off a finger, I thought, glancing nervously at the glittering array of knives spread out before me like Sir Lancelot’s armoury? Should I sink my Cap Classique quicker to calm my nerves – or will that exacerbate the likelihood of blundering?
But in fact, once the class began, it was clear that none of us situated on the wrong side of the block were going to be tested. Bar the occasional whisk of eggs, yolks and sugar for the bitter chocolate fondant, quartering of tomatoes for confit, and layering of tomato, anchovy and basil for terrine, Margot and Chris had everything in hand. Witty and unassuming, the chefs soon bantered with each other and us with ease, never missing a beat and seldom stalling their utensils to crack a joke or share a tip. They demonstrated each step of the 18-recipe meal with practised precision and tutored us as if teaching, and not cooking, were their every day profession.We learned how meticulous Margot is about selecting seasonal ingredients and that, wherever possible, she uses fresh produce that comes from the Franschhoek valley. Chris told us about his trips to places in the Swartland to personally select organic vegetables and the about lengths that chefs will go to to import rare ingredients into the country. I saw that cooking at that level requires the kind of organisation and preparation that would test any project manager’s most sophisticated Excel spreadsheet. I was reminded anew how scientific a process cooking is, and yet I saw that you have to be an exceptionally talented artist to get it right – and that you need the patience of a saint.
It was dark by the time we sat down for dinner and listened to Môreson winemaker, Hannes Meyer’s wine pairing rationale to accompany the meal. While I acknowledge that the effort I contributed to its being was minimal – I shamelessly allowed the others to jump in on the rare occasions that a volunteer were called for – I could not wait to sample the food Margot and Chris had prepared. After having witnessed each painstaking step, having learned the hows, whys and wheres of each ingredient, and having examined every technique and touch, my expectation of the meal was immense.
And the verdict?
Tomatoes have never been more tomato-ey, nor more versatile, salmon trout (poached in vanilla olive oil, and served with fennel confit, smoked salmon fritter and seaweed beurre blanc) has never been more succulent nor so flavourful, and bitter chocolate fondant with a white chocolate and granadilla centre, and granadilla glass tuille has never found the sweet spot as quickly and so satisfyingly.
But could I, in the comfortable surrounds of my own kitchen, re-create the Margot magic? Probably not. My husband, on the other hand – who was embarrassingly froopie enough about Margot to ask her to sign his apron – has been practising ever since – and that works for me.
(First published in The Weekender.)