Judge A Man By The Company He Keeps
As hard as you try, there are no guarantees in life. Just ask Jacques Kallis and Morne Steyn, former icons of the Proteas cricket squad and the Springbok rugby team: we all, it seems, reach our sell-by date. It's no different in the culinary world, where new blood is the infusion every table needs to sustain its currency, its freshness and its palate. Ten years is an awful long time at the top of the restaurant trade, and pushing the envelope is part of the trick in staying there. In Hartford's case, there's the added anxiety that comes to every establishment with the changing of the guard, and with Jackie Cameron's departure into the world of teaching, the choice of her successor was always going to challenge the best of us. We shouldn't have worried ourselves too much: history was with us, going back to the days of Aaron Maduna who started out as our "personal" cook when we lived at Hartford, and whom we sent on to become head chef at the world-renowned Mala Mala Game Reserve. His successor was Salmon Nell, who graduated to the post of housekeeper and personal chef to Bridget Oppenheimer; Floris Smith is the name behind Bushmanskloof's reputation as a food haven, while Richard Carstens started his KZN sojourn as the head man at Hartford, before we installed him at our new venture, Lynton Hall, where he became Eat Out's Chef Of The Year.
The Jackie Cameron story is universally told, and now we have Travis Finch, whom Jackie praised in her final appearance here as the young man she insisted we take on at all costs, because she didn't want him cooking for anyone else! High praise from the high priestess.
That was a long-drawn out prologue in getting to the point of this article. The Hartford team, chef Travis Finch, "G.M" Duncan Bruce and garden guru, Sonia van der Merwe, clambered aboard SA 525 last Monday morning, harbouring the butterflies you would expect of a number three batsman on test debut. Their mission was to attend the annual American Express Platinum Fine Dining Awards in Cape Town where, as it turns out this year, 46 of the best eateries nationally were applauded for their excellence. Three of them were up for special recognition as the only restaurants to have garnered ten consecutive honours in this category, one the world "top fifty" establishment, Le Quartier Francais, another the widely-acclaimed The Greenhouse restaurant at the Cellars-Honenhort, and the third our own little champion, Hartford House. The Carol Boyes ice buckets commemorating the "tenth" are the ornamentally unique pieces you’d find at a king's banquet, and befitting of an occasion of such august participants. A timely boost too, for a young team raring to show the world the fresh breeze that blows at Hartford.
Editor's note: You might wonder, why the "garden" delegate at a culinary celebration. Those who've read Frank Chemaly's crit following his and Anne Steven's restaurant visit in last week's Mercury, will know that there are big things in the air in the Hartford and the Summerhill gardens at the moment. The idea is the transformation of what is already one of the province’s floral showpieces, into a magnet of a dimension and magnificence irresistible to N3 "too-ers" and "fro-ers" on their way to the coast. The team spent the "morning after" at Babloynstoren, where Koos and Karen Becker of Naspers fame have built a garden and scale of a beauty replicated in few parts of the world. While ours is an altogether different concept (we don't "own" Naspers, we're only tiny shareholders!) there are plant species and techniques common to both environs, and any collaboration with the expertise at the disposal of Babloynstoren, will save a few headaches on the road ahead.