Chantel Dart­nall, The Best Lady Chef | CHEF

The Best Lady Chef 2017

Upscale Living Magazine - - Content - | By Heléne Ra­mack­ers

The me­dia hype has reached fever pitch with in­ter­views and photo shoots ga­lore. When you are The Best Lady Chef 2017, that is par for the course. South Africa’s Chantel Darn­tall takes it all in her stride – cool as a cu­cum­ber, she spoke to Up­scale Liv­ing mag­a­zine about her path to the ul­ti­mate ac­co­lade.

A bit of back­ground – stud­ies, train­ing, etc.

When I ar­rived in Lon­don as a young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced com­mis chef in the busy Chez Nico kitchen, I was lit­er­ally chucked in the deep end and had to learn how to swim very quickly. It didn’t take long to learn that the quicker and the more per­fectly you per­formed the tasks you were given, the greater the rest of the team’s re­spect be­came for you, and even­tu­ally I was one of the team. This taught me that no mat­ter how hard any task may seem, if you prac­tice and per­se­vere it all be­comes eas­ier in the end.

Any anec­do­tal sto­ries from your child­hood and your ‘foodie evo­lu­tion”?

My mother was one of my big­gest in­flu­ences grow­ing up. Even now the smell of a roast chicken brings back won­der­ful child­hood mem­o­ries. She squeezed a bit of le­mon on it and added lots of spices. I can still smell it roast­ing. I longed for it while I lived in Lon­don – it brought back mem­o­ries of home, feel­ing safe and hav­ing some­one else cook for me. My fam­ily has al­ways sup­ported me and en­cour­aged me to do what I en­joy and they have ex­posed me to and pro­vided me with the op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­plore the culi­nary world that helped de­velop my palate. With­out them, I would not be where I am to­day.

Did you eat your veg­gies as a child?

I have al­ways loved veg­eta­bles. In fact, for a while as a teenager I was a veg­e­tar­ian. How­ever, when I re­alised that I wanted to make food my life, I re­alised that I had to eat ev­ery­thing.

When and where did your love for food start?

From the time I was small, I have al­ways been very pas­sion­ate about cook­ing and have al­ways wanted to be a chef. Apart from the 15 min­utes in grade 9 where I thought I wanted to be a hair­dresser!

What are your fa­vorite in­gre­di­ents to work with on a sea­sonal ba­sis?

I love work­ing with ed­i­ble flow­ers. A sea­son mostly dic­tates which in­gre­di­ents I use, but I also find in­spi­ra­tion from in­gre­di­ents which I dis­cover dur­ing my trav­els.

De­scribe the food you cre­ate?

I am pas­sion­ate about us­ing or­ganic and sea­sonal pro­duce and en­deav­our to ren­der “na­ture on a plate”.

Do you have a sig­na­ture style?

I de­scribe my cook­ing style as “Botan­i­cal Cui­sine”. The fa­ther of botan­i­cal cook­ing is Michel Bras whose res­tau­rant is on the top of the

Aubrac plateau in Laguiole France, about four hours from Paris in the mid­dle of nowhere. You get there by driv­ing along long, wind­ing roads in the coun­try­side. One salad has 29 dif­fer­ent veg­eta­bles. You can feel you’re start­ing to glow with health af­ter eat­ing it! I am also in­spired by the set­ting of Res­tau­rant Mo­saic which is sit­u­ated in the Fran­colin Con­ser­vancy with an abun­dance of wildlife, birds and indige­nous plants.

How long (how many tast­ings) does it take to cre­ate the per­fect dish and what is your fool­proof method to re-cre­ate it?

We take as long as nec­es­sary to cre­ate a dish for the menu. I al­ready have ideas for dishes for next sum­mer and we worked on the up­com­ing au­tumn/win­ter menu once we had launched our sum­mer menu. The staff and I have tast­ings every Tues­day, tweak­ing the dishes and com­ing up with the per­fect wine to com­ple­ment them. There is no fool-proof method. It is prac­tice and the abil­ity to al­ways let the dish evolve.

What, in your opin­ion, sets your food apart from other restau­rants’ dishes?

The love and pas­sion the team and I put into the food.

How im­por­tant is it to cook from the heart?

Very im­por­tant. For me, it’s all about pas­sion. I put my heart and soul into every dish I cre­ate. I think that as a chef you have to be pas­sion­ate about what you do and you have to truly love it. That pas­sion will be re­flected in your food.

Foodie men­tors?

Def­i­nitely Michele Bras in France, Chef Ray­mond Blanc in the U.K and the late great leg­end Au­guste Es­coffier. They were, and are, all true cui­sine vi­sion­ar­ies; their ap­proach to in­volve all the senses dur­ing a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is what we em­brace at Res­tau­rant Mo­saic.

Your take on recipe books?

I love read­ing cook­ery books and see­ing what chefs and cooks around the world are do­ing.

Have you cooked for any well-known peo­ple? If yes, with­out dis­clos­ing their iden­tity, what was that ex­pe­ri­ence like?

I get such plea­sure when any­one loves my food whether they are fa­mous or not. Ob­vi­ously if it’s some­one you have ad­mired for years there is a cer­tain pres­sure.

Is there some­one spe­cific you would love to cook for? Who would that be and what would you cook for them?

My hero - the fa­ther of botan­i­cal cook­ing - Michel Bras. I would pre­pare any one of my dishes for him to hear what his im­pres­sions are about my in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Botan­i­cal cui­sine.

Who does the cook­ing at home?

Ei­ther my mom or I cook at home. When I do, I pre­fer to keep it sim­ple. My fa­vorite is pasta with a creamy mush­room sauce.

Do you have any guilty plea­sure(s)?

Watch­ing a box set on TV and eat­ing pop­corn.

You work with food all day, yet you are tiny in stature. How do you man­age to stay in such in­cred­i­ble shape?

It is all about moder­a­tion.

There’s a say­ing ‘you should never trust a thin chef ’? What is your opin­ion of that?

It doesn’t mat­ter the size of a chef. What does mat­ter is the size of their heart (the love they put into the dishes they cre­ate).

How long have you been at the helm of Mo­saic?

We opened Res­tau­rant Mo­saic just over 11 years ago.

It is hard work be­ing a chef – de­scribe a typ­i­cal day in your life?

As we serve break­fast to our ho­tel guests, the first per­son to ar­rive in the kitchen at 06:30 puts the crois­sants and pain au cho­co­lat in to bake. The rest of the team will start to ar­rive soon af­ter and we have a morn­ing rit­ual where we each hug one an­other and say good morn­ing. Once ev­ery­one is busy with their prep and the kitchen is set up for break­fast, I will head out­side to pick some gar­nish and see what is new and in­ter­est­ing in the gar­den. Our guests en­joy sleep­ing a bit later as it is so peace­ful, so break­fast ser­vice sel­dom fin­ishes be­fore 11am. There­after it is a quick scrub down of the kitchen and then we get set up for lunch ser­vice. I per­son­ally go out to each table to wel­come the guests and ex­plain the menu. By the time I have fin­ished with the last table and get back into the kitchen. the first amuse bouche is al­ready start­ing to leave the kitchen and ser­vice is in full swing. De­pend­ing on the pace of our guests, we usu­ally fin­ish lunch ser­vice some­where be­tween 4pm and 5pm. Then we all grab a quick few bites of our staff lunch and ev­ery­one gets back to prep­ping to get ready for din­ner ser­vice.

At 5.30pm we all scrub down and set up again so that we have an hour to do the fi­nal prepa­ra­tions be­fore din­ner ser­vice starts at 7pm ... and ev­ery­thing starts all over again. By around 11.30pm, ev­ery­thing starts to wind down and we pack up and clean up the kitchen. De­pend­ing on who fin­ished ser­vice first that per­son would start pre­par­ing staff din­ner and at about half past mid­night, we have a bite to eat and head to bed.

What can pa­trons ex­pect when they dine at Mo­saic?

My dream was al­ways for Res­tau­rant Mo­saic to be­come one of the best restau­rants in the coun­try. My ini­tial vi­sion that I had for the res­tau­rant, re­mains un­changed. My team and I are still com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing guests with an un­for­get­table multi-sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence. We en­deav­our to cre­ate a tran­quil en­vi­ron­ment that re­flects our pas­sion for art and na­ture, where pa­trons can re­lax and es­cape from their busy lives while en­joy­ing ex­quis­ite food that tells a story.

Is there a lot of pres­sure on you to cre­ate ‘the next best thing’ and how do you keep calm?

There is some pres­sure but I go for long walks ei­ther at the beau­ti­ful Fran­colin Con­ser­vancy where Mo­saic is sit­u­ated or on the beach at Na­ture’s Val­ley where we have a sec­ond home. Both calm me while also giv­ing me in­spi­ra­tion. One of my fa­vorite dishes in a pre­vi­ous menu was Mil­lion­aire’s Nest Egg; quail eggs, black truf­fle paste and cour­gette served with fresh truf­fles. The in­spi­ra­tion for this dish came when I hap­pened to see a dis­carded bird’s nest dur­ing a walk in the con­ser­vancy where the res­tau­rant is sit­u­ated.

Do you have any non-ne­go­tiables no-no’s in your kitchen?

A lack of con­sis­tency. The say­ing that you are only as good as the last plate you send out of the kitchen was drilled into me at every ser­vice in every kitchen I have ever worked in. Noth­ing ex­cept “per­fec­tion” was al­lowed to go out of the kitchen.

Do you have any kitchen gad­gets you can­not do with­out?

I love sauces so a good whisk is essen­tial.

The de­sign of the res­tau­rant is beau­ti­ful and the in­te­rior very warm and invit­ing. Who is be­hind the de­sign and in­te­ri­ors?

This a true fam­ily af­fair and we all had a fin­ger in the pie when it came to the in­te­rior of the res­tau­rant – but I have al­ways had a great affin­ity for Art Nou­veau in­te­ri­ors.

You are very in­volved in the res­tau­rant – greet­ing pa­trons and show­ing your face reg­u­larly. How im­por­tant is it to be the face of Mo­saic?

I think it is key! If I am not in the kitchen, the res­tau­rant does not open. I think din­ers like to know that the chef, whose food they have heard about, is in the kitchen pre­par­ing dishes for them and they like to meet that per­son. I also like to meet our guests and get di­rect feed­back from them on their meal - good or bad.

Do you have any em­bar­rass­ing cook­ing sto­ries to share?

A long time ago, I tried to cook rice in a mi­crowave. The re­sult was char­coal. There have never been short cuts in my kitchen since then!

Have you ever re­ceived un­war­ranted crit­i­cism? If yes, how did you deal with it?

It is im­pos­si­ble to please ev­ery­one of your guests all of the time and since botan­i­cal cook­ing is a very unique style, it doesn’t al­ways ap­peal to ev­ery­one’s taste. I have been told by some guests that there are too many flow­ers in my food – but that is my style. As a chef, it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand this and en­sure that you share your food phi­los­o­phy with your clients, but I also think it is im­por­tant that guests do a lit­tle re­search about restau­rants be­fore they just blindly go and make a book­ing to en­sure that the res­tau­rant they have se­lected will ap­peal to their per­sonal taste and will min­i­malise the chances that they might be dis­ap­pointed.

What type of a res­tau­rant pa­tron are you?

When I have some time avail­able to eat out, I like to ex­plore and to visit all the dif­fer­ent chefs I know, so I very sel­dom go to the same restau­rants and vary from Ja­panese and Ital­ian to fine din­ing - I re­ally en­joy other chefs’ cook­ing. Every year I am for­tu­nate enough to travel abroad and try and eat at some of the best restau­rants in the world.

What have been your best din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences that have stood out for you?

I’ve had some in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ences but the ul­ti­mate was in a small res­tau­rant called L’As­trance in Paris. Pas­cal Bar­bot’s ap­proach to food means no cream or but­ter. Rather he uses Ori­en­tal in­gre­di­ents and cit­rus. I’ll never for­get his foie gras with raw but­ton mush­rooms and hazel­nut oil.

Have you eaten any­thing out-of-the or­di­nary and weird?

I have eaten fruit bat be­fore when I was in Sey­chelles, and had kan­ga­roo and crocodile while I was in Eng­land – but other than that … I can’t think of any­thing else.

Is there a dish you re­ally don’t like and wouldn’t eat?

As a chef, I be­lieve that you should try ev­ery­thing at least once (this nat­u­rally ex­cludes any dare­devil con­coc­tions made by any­one with the sole pur­pose to be un­pleas­ant or ined­i­ble). Hav­ing

said that, I am not a big fan of kid­neys!

You have trav­elled for work and hope­fully for plea­sure. Which places are em­bed­ded in your mem­ory and why?

My great­est food dis­cov­ery while trav­el­ing was tonka beans (with its in­cred­i­ble marzi­pan, vanilla fla­vors) which I tasted for the first time at Chef Jean Ge­orges Klein’s Res­tau­rant L’Arns­bourg in France and white bal­samic glaze which I dis­cov­ered in Mo­dena dur­ing my first visit to Italy.

Any places you would like to visit in the fu­ture?

It is still on my bucket list to travel to Ja­pan, I have not ex­plored In­dia or Morocco yet and can’t wait to do so… and there are a few restau­rants in the United States that I have al­ways wanted to go and visit like Eleven Madi­son Park in New York City and Alinea in Chicago … and this is to name but a few.

When peo­ple travel some­where, how im­por­tant do you think the food as­pect of the ex­pe­ri­ence should be?

I can’t speak for oth­ers, but for me, it is one of the main rea­sons why I travel and why I love to travel.

You seem to be a pri­vate per­son. Is there some­one spe­cial at home or is it a case of

keep­ing your per­sonal life pri­vate?

It is the lat­ter. I keep my home life to my­self.

Huge con­grat­u­la­tions on win­ning the in­cred­i­ble ac­co­lade of The Best Lady Chef 2017. Please talk us through that mind-blow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Thank you. To be hon­est it took a while to sink in! It’s a ma­jor award when you look at the other chefs who were nom­i­nated such as Spain’s Elena Arzak and France’s So­phie Pic who both have three Miche­lin stars. I have al­ways ad­mired them. The one thing peo­ple have asked since my re­turn to South Africa: “Did I know that I was go­ing to win?” I re­ally didn’t. I thought be­ing nom­i­nated was the ul­ti­mate award. I made the de­ci­sion to fly across the world for one night to at­tend the awards cer­e­mony in War­saw, be­cause it was such a won­der­ful priv­i­lege to be in­cluded with these gi­ants who I ad­mire so much. I was just ex­cited to meet some of my food he­roes and be in the same room as them. To win ex­ceeded all my wildest dreams. It is a great honor for me, my won­der­ful team and for South Africa.

Any ex­cit­ing plans for 2018 you would like to share?

To keep on grow­ing in culi­nary terms and ex­plor­ing all facets of food. Watch this space ....

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