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