Extract from Chef - The Blue Train
by Nicky Furniss
Chef Jackie Cameron is something of a celebrity in KwaZulu-Natal. Open the local newspaper, The Witness, and you are likely to see a smiling photo of her next to yet another delicious sounding recipe mention her name to a Midlands resident and most will respond with Oh yes, she's the chef at Hartford House." Jackie has every reason to be well known around here,
but there are also a whole host of reasons why her renown should stretch far further than the borders of KwaZulu-Natal, as we recently discovered.
Look at a photo of Jackie and you are immediately struck by how pretty she is with her auburn hair and striking earrings, but in person, she is anything but girly'. Instead, words like 'grounded', 'determined' and 'energetic' spring to mind. She is also quick to point out that she refuses to be stereotyped for being a woman. "My dad brought my sister and I up to believe that we were equal to men. I think a lot of men have got annoyed with me because I haven't always known my place, but if you can do the work, do it!" she says. And hard work is certainly not something Jackie is afraid of. "I grew up in a family where my parents worked extremely hard - long hours, getting stuck in and getting it done - that is normal for me."
This kind of work ethic stood her in good stead when she was appointed as the executive chef at Hartford House, a five-star boutique hotel on a world renowned stud farm in the Midlands, at the tender age of 19. While most other chefs would be extremely daunted by such responsibility at such a young age, Jackie did what she knew best and just got stuck in. "I was never overwhelmed. Only now when I look back and see pictures do I think: Gee whiz! Look how young I was!'".
Since those early days at Hartford, Jackie has transformed what was once a virtually unknown restaurant to one of the top ten restaurants in KwaZulu-Natal and then one of the top ten restaurants in the country - with one top ten Dine Award and two Eat Out Top Ten awards in recent years. The growth of the restaurant's reputation in culinary circles is one of the reasons why Jackie has chosen to stay here for the past nine years - an unusual move for a top chef. "What's great about Hartford is that I am able to set new goals for myself every year and as I have been able to grow, so too has my team. In the time I have been here, I have also gone overseas 16 times to different foodie events, so there has never been a dull moment - it's kept challenging me," she explains.
Jackie also enjoys the freedom that her current position enables her to explore different aspects of the food industry. "What's brilliant about being here is that I get the opportunity to do a whole lot of things. I am busy doing a recipe book at the moment, plus I take part in different food critting and judging throughout the year. I enjoy everything about food; I don't just enjoy cooking it. I enjoy creating dishes, speaking to the guests after dinner, food photography, food writing - all different levels of food."
This holistic approach to food is certainly evident in the sophisticated dishes Jackie and her team concoct. What else is evident is Jackie's culinary philosophy of keeping her food simple (yet often surprising) and always highlighting the main flavours in a dish. "Never overcomplicate things on your plate. So often you find that there is just so much going on that you can't take it all in. If you are eating springbok, it needs to taste like springbok; if you are eating prawns and you have a blind tasting you need to be able to tell that they are prawns," she explains.
Jackie also draws a lot of her inspiration from memories and experiences. As a child, food was very much a part of the family dynamic. "When I think about my childhood memories, they are all centred around either the kitchen or the dining room table. If we felt like something sweet, it didn't matter what time it was - nine or ten 'o clock at night - we would go down to the kitchen and bake a cake. That was the way we grew up. My grandfather was a butcher and my grandparents cooked very well. My mom also cooks very well," she explains.
With such a foodie heritage to draw from, many of Jackie's dishes are drawn from old family recipes that she has made her own. She also loves to be inspired by other chefs, and thanks to her many overseas trips her cuisine has a definite international flavour. "I always cook from the heart and I reflect and take a lot from my younger years and different experiences that I have had. Most of my dishes have a little story to them. We never just throw things together for no reason - there is always quite a lot of thought that goes into it as well as lots of tasting and trying," she explains.
It is this kind of thought and precision that sets Jackie apart from many of her contemporaries and which has earned her and Hartford House a slew of accolades. But, Jackie admits, it is often the "people aspect" of her job that she finds most rewarding. "Nearly all of my staff has come from working on the farm. Most of them don't have any tertiary education, but we train them here and it's amazing how much some of them have grown. One went with me to Switzerland, another one went to Prague and another to Shanghai - and these are ladies who have never been on an escalator, have never flown, have never been to Durban, have never been on a plane. It's crazy, but I am the one who learns more from the experience than anything else," she says. "All of the awards are wonderful to get but I don't think there is any better award than actually seeing the development of another human being. Seeing their development and their growth - there's nothing better!"
It is these kinds of personal experiences that will make it hard for Jackie to ever leave Hartford House, but when she does, what can we expect from her? "I think after Hartford, I would like to open something on my own," she says. While she says she plans to stay in KwaZulu-Natal, she is not letting anything slip about where or when this future venture may be: "Dot, dot, dot..." she says with a laugh.
Well, one thing is for certain, no matter where Jackie Cameron ends up going, the food she will make there will certainly be the stuff that memories are made of. Hartford House is located in Mooi River in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. For reservations and more information, contact +27 (0) 33 263 2713, email email@example.com or visit www.hartford.co.za.