Michelle McGrane, Marlene van der Westhuizen
Great recipes and conversation with South African chef, Marlene van der Westhuizen
Delectable (Food from Rural France to Urban Cape)
Author: Marlene van der Westhuizen
Photographer: Stephen Inggs
Publisher: Pan Macmillan & Rollerbird Press (August 2006)
Win a copy of Delectable!
Author Marlene van der Westhuizen is a trained chef who is known for the wine and food pairing she does regularly for terroir and vertical wine tastings. She also launches new wines and promotes wine cellars. She loves doing food and cooking demonstrations in both her kitchens: one in Cape Town, South Africa, and the other in Charroux in the Auvergne. She has compiled foods articles for numerous magazines, including Garden & Home, Taste, Insig, Sarie and The Property Magazine.
Marlene lives with her husband and son in Green Point, Cape Town.
A passion for food is a gift that I love to share … with rolled up sleeves and my hands covered in flour, a rather messy glass of superb red on the side. Or picking sun-warmed blueberries on the way home from a French village market, a basket filled with asparagus, artichokes, blood-red tomatoes, lambs lettuce, fresh bread and Comté cheese over my arm …
- Marlene van der Westhuizen, Delectable
Marlene, did you cook while growing up? Who has influenced your cooking through the years?
Beyond the odd egg and a couple of exploded tins of condensed milk, my mom didn't allow me close to her kitchen, for very obvious reasons. She is a very good cook who taught us everything from the difference between béarnaise and béchamel (strictly as consumers), to how to fold a napkin on your lap to prevent it dropping on the floor and causing an international incident.
Much later I was influenced by my first mentor, John Jackson, with whom I trained, and Peter Veldsman, who is like a wise sage keeping a concerned eye on my more adventurous culinary pursuits.
When did your passion for food develop and what made you decide to become a chef?
The passion, albeit dormant, was always there. I’ve always loved the smells, texture and colours as well as the feel of raw produce. The actual decision to train as a chef wasn't that simple. My husband had to first finish his studies (we met at Tukkies) before I could "leave home" to train as a chef. It was one of those inevitable decisions. I just had to do it.
Where did you train and how long was your training? How difficult was it being a culinary student? Would you do everything the same way again?
I trained with John Jackson in his kitchens at the Peninsula Hotel in Sea Point for a year. But this line does not begin to tell the story of the total shock that is a commercial kitchen. It's vast, noisy, hot, really not clean by "home" standards, and you need to be tough to survive. Your sore feet, burnt wrists, amputated fingers and disintegrating spine are of no concern whatsoever to the client who is waiting, full of expectation, for his fantastically prepared confit de canard.
The only way to learn how hot the kitchen really is, is to get into it. At my age, I really had no option; to "study" cooking at a civilised culinary academy would have been a waste of precious time.
Tell me one of your most vivid memories of your work in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Alsace.
Many memories: the beauty of the region, the wonderful produce, foie gras to die for, fish I didn't know existed, a kitchen that was "washed" twice a day (walls included!), double shifts with a little stint as cellarboy in between, and the most gorgeous upper arms when I came home.
How has growing up in South Africa and working for three years at the Château la Creuzette in France influenced your style of cooking?
I’m a white African with French/Scottish/German roots. These four very different cultures are the reason why I can relate with the same enthusiasm to tomato stew, confit, trout and good mustard. There was a wonderful moment at the Château one dark stormy night: all the lights in the town were out and we were having supper at the kitchen table around a massive silver candelabrum when we heard a very distinctive "Aauuummph". We thought we had finally, conclusively, lost it … a lion in a little French village? And then he roared! The circus was in town. I suppose that says all about my style of cooking … there’ll be lions …
Why do many chefs have the reputation of being difficult and temperamental? Could it be attributed to the strenuous working conditions, the constant pressure they experience?
There is NO reason to be difficult and temperamental. If you are, you are an immature manager who didn't do your menu planning or mis en place well. Your clients will have to try and digest all those negative vibes with their stressfully prepared food served by jittery waitrons.
What personal qualities would you say a gourmet cook needs to have?
Enthusiasm, people skills, stamina, creativity, curiosity, and above all, a superb palate.
Do you ever work from recipes? Would you measure ingredients exactly or roughly estimate?
A recipe is a good indication of flavours that marry well. So yes, I do use recipes as "stimulants"! I hardly ever measure ingredients; I’d rather taste.
How important is experimentation with ingredients and new techniques to you?
I’m a classically trained chef. I’m afraid most "new" is inedible.
In terms of size, versatility, efficiency and convenience, what is your favourite kitchen appliance?
My no 25 E. Dehillerin chef’s knife.
Tell me about your favourite basic ingredient.
Salt from all over the globe: Peruvian Pink, Danish Viking, Sel Gris du Paludier, Halen Mon, Hawaiin Black, Sel de Geurande. The list goes on.
And your favourite spices and herbs?
All the wonderful spices that are so evocative of North Africa: cardamom, cinnamon, cumin …
The herbs I love to use are the simple ones: basil (heaps of it), rosemary, sage, thyme, bayleaves (not a herb but great as an ingredient in a bouquet garni).
For a chef, how important is the history and the tradition of a dish?
For this chef, it’s hugely important. The provenance of a dish is as relevant as that of a painting. How can you execute anything exquisitely if you don’t know what you’re working with?
What are the most important aspects of running a successful kitchen?
Cook "in pictures", ie every step of the way must look good enough to shoot: during preparation, in the pot and after plating. And clean as you go – a messy kitchen is an unsafe place in many ways.
What is your personal philosophy of fine dining?
As a client, I want to be surprised and delighted. As the chef, to surprise and delight.
When you're at home with your family, what do you like to eat?
We eat anything. Last night we had individual oxtail and venison pies with a spoonful of Maroelajellie from Hoedspruit and honey and cinnamon-baked sweet potatoes. Excellent!
Would you name your most-consulted cookbook?
Without a doubt my Larousse Gastronomique.
What was your motivation and inspiration for Delectable? Would you briefly describe the book?
I was at a time in my career where it became inevitable to do a book – so many students wanted one and I had so-o-o many recipes that I needed to put down in a more concrete form before I buried myself under heaps of paper.
Stephen Inggs, Louis Jansen van Vuuren and I had been discussing the possibility of a book or two between us. Stephen and I wanted to do a book in black and white, using the recipes our Cooks' Club in Cape Town uses on a regular basis (maybe we’ll still do that!). And Louis and I wanted to do a food and art book. The latter was first in line, but Tafelberg turned down the concept as being too expensive. Stephen, who was on a sabbatical at the time, agreed that we should do a French-inspired South African book anyway - without a publisher. And Louis and his partner, Hardy Olivier, were generous enough to "take us in" for three weeks. We shot all the food shots on location at the demonstration kitchen at Château la Creuzette, during a blistering summer, without any assistants. I've never worked so hard in my life. We had to average eight shots a day to finish all the work in time. We were mad!
The book itself is a personal journey that encapsulates food, lifestyle and great loves. From South Africa to France: the Château, where I’ve spent wonderful times, Charroux, where we have a small cottage, Green Point Village, where we live, Middelvlei in Stellenbosch, and the beautiful Brandfontein, a fynbos haven next to the sea.
Stephen Inggs has provided magnificent photographs to complement your recipes. Tell me a little more about your collaborative process.
It was wonderful working with Stephen; he taught me all about "light"! Ad nauseum! All the photographs in Delectable were shot with natural light. The only one that wasn't, was at Brandfontein, where we used candlelight. Stephen was fantastically patient and would reshoot whenever I wanted … calmly! And in that heat!
A number of the recipes in Delectable mention vanilla paste. What is vanilla paste and how readily is it available here in South Africa?
Vanilla paste is vanilla grains preserved in a slightly alcoholic jelly. It is wonderful to use in massive dollops and can be found at Main Ingredient in Sea Point.
What would you like readers to get out of reading and cooking with your first cookbook?
I’d love them to share in the total joy I had in creating this book and pick up on the scents and smells of kitchens here and in the Auvergne, and be inspired to cook some of the food.
Do you think South Africans are becoming more knowledgeable and adventurous when it comes to food?
Where is your favourite restaurant in South Africa?
It varies. At the moment it's Emily’s in the Clocktower at the V & A Waterfront.
Have you considered opening a restaurant of your own here one day?
Maybe. If I can convince my husband to do front of house! I’ll pay him …
What are you planning for the future, Marlene?
Many more wine and food pairings, maybe another book in two years' time, and a lot more time with my family and friends!
Red pepper, black olive and anchovy compote
This compote is a great starter and has its origins somewhere in the south of France. I love to serve it with warm, crusty bread and a glass of sauvignon blanc. Makes enough for 8 people.
4 red peppers
125 ml extra virgin olive oil
250 g black depipped olives
4 cloves garlic, peeled
10 thyme sprigs, chopped
8 mint leaves
20 g basil leaves
freshly milled black pepper
Grill the red peppers, turning them regularly, until the skin has blackened. Remove, let cool and skin. Remove the seeds and slice the peppers in thin slices. Try to catch the piquant juices … never rinse the peppers to get rid of the seeds. That's a punishable offence!
Heat the olive oil in a casserole, and stir in the peppers and olives. Add the garlic and thyme, and cook gently over a low heat for 10 minutes to infuse the flavours. Add the anchovies, turn up the heat slightly, and stir until the anchovies have melted away. Remove from the heat. Chop the mint and basil leaves, and add. Season with the black pepper, cool to room temperature and serve immediately.
Recommended wine: Harvest Moon Sauvignon Blanc
One cannot fix one's eyes on the
commonest natural production without
finding food for a rambling fancy.
- Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Chicken with peaches, honey and parsley
I always buy more juicy yellow cling peaches than necessary for this dish, and stack them up on an old pewter platter … also a "brocante"* find. And it's wonderful to walk home with a basket full of fragrant leeks, garlic, parsley, honey … This will serve 4 or 6, depending on the size of your chicken.
100 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 chicken, cut up into portions
25 ml paprika
50 ml flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 celery stick, chopped
6 leeks, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
250 ml chicken stock
250 ml orange juice
4 peaches, peeled and sliced
50 ml honey
½ bunch parsley, chopped
Heat the olive oil in a pot, and fry the chicken pieces until brown. Dust with paprika and seasoned flour. Add the celery, leeks and garlic, and fry lightly. Add the liquids and simmer for 35 minutes or until the chicken pieces are soft.
Remove the chicken and reduce the stock until it becomes a thick sauce. Add the peaches and honey, season and serve with rice. Garnish with parsley.
*'brocante' – second-hand trade or antique market
Recommended wine: Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Sauvignon Blanc
A meal without wine is like a
day without sunshine.
- Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Molten chocolate puddings with a white centre
This is, by now, a classic dessert. It originated, as far as I know, with the Roux brothers. To add some zing, I've come up with the idea of placing a small block of soft-centred white Lindt chocolate into the middle of each mould before baking the puddings. The result is spectacular! Start the day before. Serves 8.
5 eggs, plus 5 extra yolks
125 g unrefined castor sugar
250 g bitter, dark (at least 70% cocoa) chocolate, broken up
250 g unsalted butter
50 g plain flour, sifted
8 blocks soft-centred white chocolate
In a bowl, beat together the eggs, yolks and sugar until pale. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate and butter gently in a bowl set over a pan of hot water. Remove from the heat. Slowly add to the egg mixture, beating until smooth. Fold in the flour. Pour into buttered moulds before the mixture begins to firm up. Put a block of white chocolate into the middle of each. Chill overnight.
The next day, heat the oven to 180ºC/Gas 4. Bake for about 10–15 minutes, until the centres "puff" and look dry. Turn out and serve.
No one who cooks, cooks alone.
Even at her most solitary, a cook
in the kitchen is surrounded by
generations of cooks past, the advice
and menus of cooks present, the
wisdom of cookbook writers.
- Laurie Colwin
Stephen Inggs (The Photographer)
Stephen Inggs is a practising fine art photographer. His work has been widely exhibited and is represented in public and private collections in South Africa and abroad. His editorial work has been published in numerous magazines, including Belle, House & Garden, House and Leisure, Elle Decoration and Conde Nast Traveller. This is his first cookbook.
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