Hartford House is proud to announce the appointment of Matthew Ambruster, who at 25 is already toting the CV of a master of his profession, as Head Chef.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Richard Carstens
An evening of fine dining requires preparation. You need to have a word with your credit card, and ask for its cooperation; you’ve got to find an outfit that will expand discreetly over the course - or five courses - of the evening; and if you are over 40 it goes without saying that you’ll have to stock up with antacids. - Shelley Seid / The TimesRead More
Situated on one of South Africa's best-known stud farms, in a spectacular garden, Hartford House is a country hotel with a history.Read More
The Hartford style has always been to invest in people with a sense of originality and adventure, who know the value of style and the meaning of hard work, and in Constantijn Hahndiek, Cheryl Goss believes she has found the ideal bearer of this tradition.Read More
When Jackie Cameron was looking for a successor, she insisted she didn't want Travis Finch cooking anywhere else. And that's what"s rustling the leaves right now.Read More
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.Read More
Twelve years ago, a blue-eyed, blonde-haired 19-year-old stripling was handed the keys to the Hartford House kitchen, and told to run. Jackie Cameron had big shoes to fill. The man who interviewed her for his job, was being redeployed to our new venture, Lynton Hall. A legend already, Richard Carstens was on his way to new-found stardom as South Africa's Number One chef, and the hole he left behind at Hartford was going to take some filling.
Undaunted by the challenge of facing the doyens of the critical media in her first week at the office, our young lady greeted the formidable forms of Victor Strugo, Metchild York Mitchell, Anne Stevens and Jos Baker through a door once darkened by the former Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha. It wasn't long and she'd attracted the encouragement of Abigail Donnelly, Anna Trapido and Derek Taylor.
In the dozen ensuing years, she has made the Hartford restaurant her own. In between, she's enjoyed the acclaim of an adoring fan club, she's festooned the pages of the culinary weeklies and she's survived a couple of critical accidents. A regular feature in Eat Out's "Top Ten", Hartford is now "bucket list" for any self-respecting gastronome, not the least of whom, Bruce Palling, The Wall Street Journal’s senior European food writer: "I had imagined this was a charmingly backwatery sort of place that was suffering from being there too long. Big mistake. I would put Hartford House in the same league as Faviken in Sweden and the Royal Mail in Australia as one of the very best remote places to eat anywhere on the planet". Doesn't get much better than that, unless you're talking about Eat Out's Top 5.
Jackie Cameron intends opening her own exclusive cooking school in Hilton in the new year. As good as she is as a cook, she's as adept at teaching. Her legacy at Hartford includes the elevation of three young Zulu ladies of limited qualification, from the scullery to representing South Africa at cooking exhibitions in Zurich, Prague and Shanghai.
Her leaving is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is just the end of the beginning. Cheryl Goss, Hartford's originator and the hand that's blown the wind up Jackie's skirt, has twice helped chefs to the mountain top. Richard Carstens was Chef of the Year, Jackie Cameron is now the leading lady. Who's to say we can't do it again?
The greatest compliment we can pay to the past, is to preside over a seamless transition to the future, preserving the things of value and building on the base that's thrilled so many ever since the doors opened here. The tradition of good cooking is as old as Hartford itself, and our graduates have populated some of the best kitchens in the land. Aaron Maduna, once the Goss family's private cook, became head chef at Mala Mala before returning for Hartford's opening as a hotel. Salmon Nell became head chef and private housekeeper to Bridget Oppenheimer, while Floris Smit is the man behind Bushman's Kloof's reputation for fine food.
This time, we're handing the baton to one of Jackie's protégé’s, Travis Finch, whose pedigree includes an insatiable curiosity, boundless ambition and a sense of je ne sais quoi, a globe-trotting CV at several leading European eateries, and especially a stint under Peter Tempelhoff at one of Cape Town's "temples", The Greenhouse. Travis is joined by another Greenhouse graduate, Brendan Ryan, whose move from Singita to KwaZulu-Natal was spurred by the adventure of doing something extraordinary in a remote location, where you're not just one of several in the same street, and comes with the strongest commendation of the legend himself. That's what brought Carstens and Cameron here, and look where they ended up.
It's hard to believe, but it's verging on eighteen years since Cheryl and I vacated Hartford House to make way for the pleasures of what has become a devoted public. If that sounds like a sacrifice on my part, it was, not so much for the public benefit but for a frustrated wife who understandably wanted to do something to create her own legacy. You see, I was quite comfortable in a residence which had once served the families of the colony's last Prime Minister, and the converted stable block at the other end of the farm was an unlikely substitute for the opulence of the old manor house. I have to confess though, with the benefit of hindsight, the joys Hartford has brought to travellers from far and wide and the reciprocal satisfaction it has given us, has reminded us that we only live once, and if we do it right, once is enough.
Those early years were a bit hit-and-miss, as neither of us or our immediate family had known the hotel trade, though it's fair to say, there's probably a little farmer and a tiny hotelier in most of us. Hospitality is a hard business, particularly at the top end, where guests expect and are entitled to get the best bang for their buck. But if you think that's tough, you should try your hand at the culinary business, as long as you can stand the heat in the kitchen. Our cooks (you'd hesitate to call them "chefs" at that stage) were lucky in the early years to enjoy the encouragement of a legendary assembly of mentors, the Victor Strugos, Joss Bakers, Mechtild York-Mitchells, Anna Trapidos and Derek Taylors of the world, critical doyens of the culinary arts, who probably saw in us a lot of enthusiasm and determination, but not much in the way of finesse and style. Without their support and guidance, none of what you see in the 2014 version of Hartford House, would've been possible.
Just recently, we hosted one of our old favourites, the formidable former Food Editor of The Mercury, Anne Stevens, who's been as fundamental an inspiration to our team as any, even if that was driven in part by a fear of falling on the foul side of her columns! Anne tells it like it is, no matter who you are, and her unique mastery of the English language is an added advantage in expressing her likes and dislikes exactly as she intends them. Jackie Cameron remembers her first week in charge of the kitchen at Hartford, after she'd taken over the reins from another celebrity of the time, Richard Carstens. He had just taken on our other new venture, Lynton Hall, which he took to the top of the South African cooking pile after his stint here. The opening of Lynton literally threw Jackie to the wolves; first Joss Baker, then Victor Strugo and then Anne Stevens in a matter of seven days, for a 19 year old. The sense of enterprise that marks her cooking to this day was her saving grace in what to most of us, might've been the longest week of our lives.
Jackie was out in the picking garden, trying to work out what she was going to make for Mrs Stevens' dessert that evening, when Anne was greeted by the "welcome" gang at the carpark under the old oak tree. The penny dropped when an irresistible cluster of ripening gooseberries had already found its way into her basket; she fashioned in her head a miniature baklava replica of the same basket, laden with fresh gooseberries and an accompanying sauce. That Anne Stevens loves a bit of "tart" in her dessert, was the catalyst that exemplifies the mutual admiration the cook and the food critic share to this day. It's apparent though from Anne's most recent column, that the "cook" had obviously overlooked this vital piece of "intelligence" in formulating this year's menu with Frangelico Dom Pedro and Gooseberry Jam, Milk Biscuit, Brioche Rusk and Berry Sorbet for "pud"; the veteran's suggestion that "something light and citrussy" might've done the trick, tells us Anne still has "tart" imprinted on her mind, though Jackie's retort is that with the gooseberry jam, she was only trying to demonstrate how far she'd come by dishing up the gooseberries in a new form! Either way, it's a compliment to Anne's status as a writer, that a chef of Jackie's modern-day renown, should still recall what she made for dessert on a particular day those twelve years ago.
This is what she had to say: "It's not entirely flowery nonsense to say that Hartford House near Mooi River provides the ideal hothouse to nurture the talent of its award-winning chef. Jackie Cameron has, in the eleven years she has been there, been afforded every opportunity to grow her skills, and every chance (thanks to owners Mick and Cheryl Goss) to travel the world and sample some of its best food. The result is that she continues to rack up awards, largely being regarded as one of the country's top 10 chefs - a distinction she alone in KwaZulu-Natal has apparently merited.
Keeping a talent like hers alive in a country setting is not easy, and every year to 18 months I return to Hartford, waiting to hear that she has been lured to the big city for more money or glory, or to find that she has lost her edge. Not so. The chefs who resided before her at Hartford did so briefly, and often with no distinction. She has proved the exception. Whether she could still bloom in the strict confines of a commercial city restaurant is a matter for speculation, but her food is extraordinary.
Very little is done purely for effect. Every dish evokes some memory for her, and is layered with thought as to what the whole will become, what will make sense to the tastebuds. Sliced raw scallops marinated in Japanese miso sauce and served with a swirl of julienne cucumber, asparagus, spring onions, celery and leeks, blobs of avocado puree' and miso paste was a simply delicious combination, each little element adding to the whole. And on the side was clever semi-set globule, a mojito flavour. I'm very much over the whole molecular gastronomy thing, but Jackie used it here as just a side issue, something to wake up the palate.
And the palate already needed wakening, after a platter of breads on the table that included patha bread, made with madumbe leaves and chilli (bringing together two cultures as Jackie says), health bread, chillibites and mealie bred with a spinach dip on the side. It was too easy to dive into that with abandon.
The scallops were followed by a smoked mussel soup which had nothing to do with smoked mussels. Fresh mussels and little pieces of nori (seaweed) were given crunch with thin, crisp, fried potatoes and garlic chips bathed in a broth served separately and poured over. For a fellow diner it was the piece de resistance. Next came the sliced meat and "coq au vin" dumplings, with a light jus poured over. Once again, everything worked in perfect harmony. But nothing could have been as harmonious as my favourite dish of the night, which was rather unpromisingly labelled as samp and beans. That was just the base though, a sophisticated take on the staple starch, studded with nuggets of meltingly tender, slightly crisped chunks of tongue, cooked sous de vide for 35 hours (which is, not to put too fine a point on it, boil-in-the-bag cooking).
With crisp roast carrots, fresh horseradish and crunchy cabbage, it was a dish to savour. I found myself longing for a plate of just that the next day. After all that richness, the dessert was just not for me. Something light and citrussy might have done the trick, but a mix of something with Frangelico liquor, gooseberry jam, milk biscuit, brioche rusk and berry sorbet I could not do. Particularly with a chocolate topping.
And I could not even dip into the plate of home-made chocolates, Turkish Delight and other goodies passed around with coffee. It was a dinner to remember, a memory to savour for another year. And by then, maybe Hartford will have moved beyond the old choice of tableware. Dishes of such style are not improved by being served on tiles and half-bricks, or in the case of the dessert, in a petri (laboratory) dish. I was glad the sommelier had pointed out the latter to me: I might have spent some time trying to crack what seemed like a particularly recalcitrant sugar crust".
Eat Out DSTV Food Network Restaurant Awards
Twelve years ago a petite blonde waif wafted into the Hartford kitchen. A demure little thing with cherry lips and an endearing smile, her icy blue eyes betrayed a steely determination. Head Chef Richard Carstens (later to become South Africa's Chef Of The Year during his tenure at our new venture, Lynton Hall,) was about to depart for the opening of that South Coast hostelry, and Jackie Cameron had been recruited to step into his foreboding shoes.
Around the same time, our parent business, Summerhill Stud was developing the momentum that would take it to nine consecutive national Racehorse Breeders' titles, the culmination of some twenty-five years in business, so nobody knows better than us what it takes to climb Everest. While a location 12 kilometres outside the dustiest little dorp in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, may be the ideal spot for a thoroughbred farm, it's not the place you'd ordinarily choose to make a name for yourself in the culinary trade. After all, it's a long way off the beaten track, and a heck of a long way from the tourist trap which is Cape Town and its environs. Somebody recently told us there were more than 65,000 eateries in South Africa, and that puts making the nation's top ten restaurants bang into perspective. The thing is though, to build a reputation, you need something of a passing trade, and not too many "foodies" in those days made the pilgrimage up the Hlatikulu road.
Earlier this year, the Hartford restaurant received the ultimate international accolade, when the senior food critic at The Wall Street Journal counted it in the top three country restaurants on the planet, and we wondered whether it could get any better than that. After all, competition for a place in Eat Out's Top Ten is more intense than it ever was these days, and South Africa's top restaurateurs now rank with the very best in the world; in any event, how do you separate number one from number twenty? Truth is, the judges do, just as they do with their Michelin gradings in Europe, and quite marvellously, last evening they counted little old Hartford in the top five in South Africa.
Given its size, its geographical disadvantages and the fact that we're not on "Main Street" when it comes to aspirant young chefs wanting to work where the lights are brightest, this is a remarkable tribute to Jackie Cameron's god-given gifts, a dedication uncommon in the world anywhere, and a team of people that've travelled every extra mile she's taken them. There've been times when their hearts were making appointments their bodies were not designed to keep, particularly remembering that when this little venture started out seventeen years ago, there was no-one in this district with a hospitality skill to speak of. That's the exciting thing, because we still have many miles to travel, and there's still plenty of room to make it even better.
Spare a thought for my wife, Cheryl, for a moment. She was the eldest of seven in a big Catholic family: she left school before it was over, to lessen the burden on a prolific father, with nothing but her natural talents, as yet undiscovered by the larger world, to recommend her. Hartford House was Cheryl's idea, and I have to confess that I and our financial people did everything we could to dissuade her from embarking on this venture, from spreadsheets showing the business would be bankrupt in six months, to reminding her that hospitality is the toughest business in the world (after racehorses!). That she and this little team in the heart of Zululand have arrived where they have this day, is a sign; if ever it was needed, that nothing is impossible: miracles just take a little longer. Besides, it's a sign that all is well in this beloved country of ours, and this is the way to make it work.
From one champion team to another, well done!
Eat Out Top 10 Restaurants for 2013
- The Test Kitchen - Cape Town, Western Cape
- Five Hundred - Sandton, Gauteng
- Rust en Vrede - Stellenbosch, Western Cape
- The Greenhouse - Cape Town, Western Cape
- Hartford House - Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal
- Jordan Restaurant - Stellenbosch, Western Cape
- Overture - Stellenbosch, Western Cape
- Camphors at Vergelegen - Somerset West, Western Cape
- The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais - Franschhoek, Western Cape
- Pierneef a La Motte - Franschhoek, Western Cape
JACKIE CAMERON COOKS AT HOME
Listen, I'm no gourmet critic, but I know good food and good wine. I earned my stripes in the viticulture world as a first year at Stellenbosch, and like horses and books, it's occupied my curiosity ever since.
I've always said you want to steer clear of creative women if you don't have deep pockets, because they're always looking for new things to do. But in my wife Cheryl, I think I got lucky. Firstly, I always ranked her in the "Top Ten" in the land, and while like me she's getting on now, I'd still rate her in the top ten in Mooi River! Besides, those who know her and know Summerhill and Hartford, will tell you she's extraordinarily gifted. In the creative sense, I mean.
Eleven years ago, she recreated Lynton Hall, and within a year of its opening, it made Conde Nast's Top 50 "Hot Hotels" of the world. Within three years, the man she sent from Hartford to head up the Lynton kitchen, Richard Carstens, had earned Eat Out's title as South Africa's leading chef.
The girl (literally) she recruited into Richard's place at Hartford House, was a nineteen-year-old stripling from St John's DSG in Pietermaritzburg. In ten years, Jackie Cameron has rocketed up the culinary ranks, taking just about every trophy there is to be taken. At 25, she became the youngest chef ever to make the Eat Out national "Top Ten", and these days, she's the pin-up girl in most worthwhile gourmet magazines.
It helps, of course, to be glamorous - she's the kind of blue-eyed blonde we all used to swoon over as youngsters, but glamour isn't part of the Cameron beat. Her feet are well and truly riveted to the soil that yields her vegetables, and she's about the best adjusted thirty-year old I know. What she is though, is obsessed, not only about cooking, but about work. If you're not of a matching passion as an aspiring chef, the Hartford kitchen's not for you.
That she's now one of cooking's most recognisable faces is a tribute to these things, and naturally, to an inborn talent of abiding proportions, nurtured by a doting grandmother from the time she first sat on a potty. Jackie Cameron has come an awful long way, to the point that Penguin Books finally managed to persuade her to put pen to paper in her first about-to-be-published "Jackie Cameron Cooks At Home".
This is the girl we know, the jeans-and-takkies type, sharing the secrets of her upbringing with a worshipping public who've been following her newspaper articles and the columns of this website, for years. I don't pretend to know how she ranks among the most-visited scribes on the internet, but I'm willing to bet the Alexa ratings will have her in the top five.
Besides being one of the continent's best chefs, she's as good a teacher. And she's doing what all good South Africans should be doing. Ten years ago, she recruited a handful of young "casuals" out of the Summerhill stables, and she taught them to wash dishes. And then to wash "veggies", to bake bread, and finally, to cook. Four years ago, one of these Zulu ladies, with just a Grade 7 education, represented South Africa at an international cooking expo in Zurich. Another followed a year later in Prague, while yet another cooked for the country in Shanghai last August; while a third generation member of the farm staff, made the January page of Unilever's "Twelve Inspiring Chefs". Inspiring, isn't it? It gets you up in the mornings.
"Jackie Cameron Cooks At Home" is not about the recipes that've made her famous, nor the cooking that has "foodies" from around the globe making the Hartford pilgrimage. It's about the path she's walked thus far; the tastes, the scents and the scenery that've shaped her life, and the people that've made her the woman she's become. For the home-cooker or the desperate housewife, it's the "must have" Bible of the modern culinary era.
Visit www.jackiecameron.co.za for more information.
"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.