Mail & Guardian
‘My oupa taught me to love food’
Internationally acclaimed chef Chantel Dartnall has closed the renowned Restaurant Mosaic near Pretoria to move her life to France and turn the elegant Château des Tesnières castle into a restaurant and hotel. She speaks to about food and nature as a magical experience
What are your early memories of joy?
It’s always had to do with food. I think one of my ultimate favourite early memories is of my grandfather having taken us out to a restaurant as a family. He loved introducing us to new food experiences and the first time he put a prawn to my mouth was the ultimate happiness. I’ve always loved food and new textures and flavours.
Were they fancy restaurants?
As a kid, going to a restaurant always felt fancy, but 35 years ago there weren’t [any]. But when we were growing up in Pretoria, we’d go out to Crazy Prawn, you know, one of those typical South African steak restaurants. So, nothing fancy, just a family going out and enjoying a meal together. Fancy restaurants only came a little bit later in my life.
And how did they?
I think my first fine-dining experience was at La Madeleine when I was about six or seven years old. Now, my grandmother always used to make smokey mussels with a little bit of lemon juice and put them on Salticraxes. So we went to La Madeleine and chef Daniel Leusch came out and explained the menu to us. When he said oysters, in my head
I saw these mussels like my grandmother made. This plate arrived with these hard shell oysters. At that point, my parents thought that if this is what she wants to experience and taste, then let her, because I’d always been quite an adventurous eater. But these oysters arrived and it was not what I thought I had ordered. My dad had to finish the rest of the plate. But that was my first fine dining experience, and after that I made sure I knew the difference between my mussels and my oysters.
Community and family is a huge part of food for you.
Indeed, because this is what brings people together. The entire philosophy of the restaurant has always been taking people and bringing them into an environment where you almost forget about the everyday hustle and bustle of reality, and just have this moment of escapism where you can truly just forget what’s happening around you and totally immerse yourself in this magical experience. And afterwards step away and feel rejuvenated.
Speaking of magic, what fairy tale is your favourite?
It’s difficult to say. I’m thinking about Jack and the Beanstalk because I could never understand how a plant could grow that big. Until we started experimenting in school when we had to put the little seeds in between the two [cotton] buds and saw this process of things growing and developing. That’s when I became fascinated by gardening and plants.
Considering you chose a castle as your next location, I thought you were going to mention princesses.
Everything that has had a big influence on my life has come from nature. It’s inspired my style of cooking and the locations, both Restaurant Mosaic and now the new Château des Tesnières. We’re in a beautiful, magical village where the legends of Merlin and King Arthur come from, so it’s almost like that lured us to the area.
Why France, specifically?
I’ve always been a big Francophile. I’ve always had this great love for anything French. And we’ve been travelling to France almost every year since I can remember. So, a lot of our travels we plan to visit France, visiting Paris but also going into the countryside. Obviously, I’ve had magical dining experiences across the world, but France has just always had a very special place in my heart.
It will take some years to renovate the castle and open the restaurant and hotel. Are you a patient person?
I don’t think I’ve ever been a patient person, because in the determination to succeed you’re always working at an incredible pace. Being in the kitchen, everything has to happen very fast. I am somebody who likes things to happen now. So, considering the prospect of something having to wait for five years before it is there is, like, “Oh my goodness, it’s going to be such a long time.” But at the tempo we’re going now already and everything that has happened in this period, time is just flying by.
Do you speak fluent French?
Not yet, but we’re aiming to get there. The village where we are, nobody speaks a word of English, so it’s sort of inspired me to really practise hard every day.
Everything about you is always so elegant. So how do you define your personal style?
I think I was born in the wrong year. In the 1980s I totally felt out of place, and I think that I would have fitted more in the 1900s Belle Époque/art Nouveau period, because that is my ultimate great love. So I’ve always loved something a little bit more vintage, a little bit chic and always aspire to that type of jewellery and that sense of sensuality and beauty and intricacy. So that’s where I find my inspiration and get my personal style from.
I’ve heard that you are quite a fan of porcelain and beautiful plates.
Some people have shoe and handbag fetishes, I have a plate fetish. And what’s even more fascinating is discovering local artists who worked with me at Mosaic, creating dishes or porcelain for specific creations from my kitchen. There was a dish that was inspired by the ocean, and Retief van Wyk, a very talented glassblower with whom I worked quite regularly, created a plate after sitting around the table and [listening to] me explaining to him this is the dish that I want. This is what it must look like and people must feel like they’re sitting by the ocean.
What is a small luxury or treat that you love to indulge in, guilty or otherwise?
The first thing that came to mind was truffle, but it’s not truffle, you know, because although I absolutely adore truffle, it’s saved for special occasions. I think that my ultimate indulgence is just having some pure chocolates. Just having a first bite of beautiful couverture chocolate in your mouth and dissolving it and you’re experiencing the flavours. There’s nothing that beats that feeling. So that is definitely an indulgence
Is there anything in the kitchen that you avoid?
I’ve never been a big fan of olives, so this is something that you will never find in any of my dishes. This is also to do with my grandfather, because the entire family was there visiting and he said, “Come and have this grape” and he popped this in my mouth and all of a sudden I bit into it and it was just this bitter, briny flavour all over my mouth. I’ve tried several times; I thought maybe I’ll grow out of it and develop a palate for it. It’s never happened.