THE UNIVERSE : SHIFTING THE CENTRE
"The signs of coronation are obvious."
Hartford's celebrity chef, Jackie Cameron, is a much travelled girl. In 2010 alone, she made five sorties to the outside world, and as rewarding as any, was a trip to Shanghai in the company of Zandile Mchunu, a home-grown prodigy of the Summerhill community, where they represented South Africa at an international cooking exhibition. The trip though, which really opened the young Maritzburg lady's eyes, was to Copenhagen in 2011, where Cameron enjoyed the counsel of the world's newest culinary sensation, Rene' Redzepi, whose Noma restaurant had been recently voted Number One in the world at that time.
Shortly before, she had ventured to Spain, where she and Cheryl Goss sampled the treasures of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, before its closure in 2010, the unassailable leader among the top 50 restaurants of the world. Unsurprisingly, Redzepi is a disciple of Adriàs, though their styles are as individual as a zebra and a buffalo.
There've been influential chefs for as along as there've been restaurants, but the idea of a sole cook standing at the head of the culinary universe is a recent invention born of two not unconnected phenomena: the unprecedented influence of Senor Adrià whose culinary revolution freed many young chefs to follow their own visions, and the newfound power of the fifty best list, which dares to rank something so ineffable as dinner. When Adrià announced two years ago that he was closing El Bulli, and Noma succeeded to the top spot on the list, Redzepi found himself ascending to the role of literal Top Chef. The fact that this role had not existed prior to Adria, hardly mattered. The king is dead: long live the king.
The signs of coronation are obvious. It used to be that more than 2 million attempted bookings annually at El Bulli, while only 60,000 of these could be seated, and if you didn't apply a year in advance (and at the same time enjoy the credentials to make the invitation list) you had little chance of getting there. While he was with us at Hartford and Lynton Hall, one-time South African No.1 chef, Richard Carstens, attempted for years to crack the nod, but as far as we know, he remained in frustration, notwithstanding that he was the undisputed local king of his idol Adria's deconstruction processes. Noma is travelling in the same direction: their tables are fully booked three months in advance, and while this is not quite in the class of El Bulli yet, the signs are obvious. Copenhagen is not quite as central or convenient as the Cote d'Azur, but critics adore the restaurant, and it's only a matter of time before the faithful flock in that direction in similar numbers. "The explosion of flavours and textures that ensue were simultaneously so subtle and startling, that nothing in a lifetime of tasting prepared me for it," wrote a reviewer for the Financial Times.
Yet the man who runs the best restaurant in the world, cannot afford his own home. Where many leading chefs seek to build empires, Redzepi wants only to dig deeper into his immediate surroundings. This helps explain why he stands in his restaurant kitchen, not offering a sceptical patron some truffle-covered delicacy from France or a pricey bit of sea urchin from Japan, but a plate of scuttling Danish ants. "They're delicious", he says, "and they're Danish". Does that ring a bell for visitors to Hartford? How many of you have heard Jackie Cameron talk about foraging in the neighbourhood, and the fact that 99% of what she dishes up here, answers her credo "local is lekker?".
How often do you find young Cameron, even on her days off, following her nose through the neighbourhood on foraging trips, inspired by the senses and the tastes of the wild plants of the region, and the bounty of its remarkable soils.
Jackie Cameron's been at Hartford House for almost ten years now, and when she came here, we didn't really have a "local" cuisine. "We're protestants in this neighbourhood, so food was just about sustenance, not really about pleasure. You'd eat your meat and potatoes in silence, and go back to work". But now she's led a revolution in the district which has elevated food to the same level as fashion, and it's affected our whole identity. She and her team are telling a new story about what it means to be local. She set out to learn how to integrate these ingredients so that she was cooking a part of our culture. She wanted us to taste the soil.
Cameron's habit of constant innovation comes from her apprenticeships at these and other great restaurants, and she maintains a friendly relationship with her former mentors. There is a parallel here in Redzepi's case, where all the world loves an oedible story, and many in the food media have tried to cast his tale as the nature-loving, terroir-based son overthrowing the hydrocolloid-obsessed, mad-scientist father. Without taking the similarities any further, and without putting our girl in the same league yet, the one thing besides the obsession with food which they share in common, is the fact that they both have their feet squarely on the ground, and they have always put the product first, and the money second. In the end, the one takes care of the other.