The media hype has reached fever pitch with interviews and photo shoots galore. When you are The Best Lady Chef, that is par for the course. South Africa’s Chantel Dartnall takes it all in her stride – cool as a cucumber, she spoke to Upscale Living magazine about her path to the ultimate accolade.
A bit of background – studies, training, etc.
When I arrived in London as a young, inexperienced commis chef in the busy Chez Nico kitchen, I was literally chucked in the deep end and had to learn how to swim very quickly. It didn’t take long to learn that the quicker and the more perfectly you performed the tasks you were given, the greater the rest of the team’s respect became for you, and eventually I was one of the team. This taught me that no matter how hard any task may seem, if you practice and persevere it all becomes easier in the end.
Any anecdotal stories from your childhood and your ‘foodie evolution”?
My mother was one of my biggest influences growing up. Even now the smell of a roast chicken brings back wonderful childhood memories. She squeezed a bit of lemon on it and added lots of spices. I can still smell it roasting. I longed for it while I lived in London – it brought back memories of home, feeling safe and having someone else cook for me. My family has always supported me and encouraged me to do what I enjoy and they have exposed me to and provided me with the opportunities to explore the culinary world that helped develop my palate. Without them, I would not be where I am today.
Did you eat your veggies as a child?
I have always loved vegetables. In fact, for a while as a teenager I was a vegetarian. However, when I realised that I wanted to make food my life, I realised that I had to eat everything.
When and where did your love for food start?
From the time I was small, I have always been very passionate about cooking and have always wanted to be a chef. Apart from the 15 minutes in grade 9 where I thought I wanted to be a hairdresser!
What are your favorite ingredients to work with on a seasonal basis?
I love working with edible flowers. A season mostly dictates which ingredients I use, but I also find inspiration from ingredients which I discover during my travels.
Describe the food you create?
I am passionate about using organic and seasonal produce and endeavour to render “nature on a plate”.
Do you have a signature style?
I describe my cooking style as “Botanical Cuisine”. The father of botanical cooking is Michel Bras whose restaurant is on the top of the Aubrac plateau in Laguiole France, about four hours from Paris in the middle of nowhere. You get there by driving along long, winding roads in the countryside. One salad has 29 different vegetables. You can feel you’re starting to glow with health after eating it! I am also inspired by the setting of Restaurant Mosaic which is situated in the Francolin Conservancy with an abundance of wildlife, birds and indigenous plants.
How long (how many tastings) does it take to create the perfect dish and what is your fool-proof method to re-create it?
We take as long as necessary to create a dish for the menu. I already have ideas for dishes for next summer and we worked on the upcoming autumn/winter menu once we had launched our summer menu. The staff and I have tastings every Tuesday, tweaking the dishes and coming up with the perfect wine to complement them. There is no fool-proof method. It is practise and the ability to always let the dish evolve.
What, in your opinion, sets your food apart from other restaurants’ dishes?
The love and passion the team and I put into the food.
How important is it to cook from the heart?
Very important. For me, it’s all about passion. I put my heart and soul into every dish I create. I think that as a chef you have to be passionate about what you do and you have to truly love it. That passion will be reflected in your food.
Definitely Michele Bras in France, Chef Raymond Blanc in the U.K and the late great legend Auguste Escoffier. They were, and are, all true cuisine visionaries; their approach to involve all the senses during a dining experience is what we embrace at Restaurant Mosaic.
Your take on recipe books?
I love reading cookery books and seeing what chefs and cooks around the world are doing.
Have you cooked for any well-known people? If yes, without disclosing their identity, what was that experience like?
I get such pleasure when anyone loves my food whether they are famous or not. Obviously if it’s someone you have admired for years there is a certain pressure.
Is there someone specific you would love to cook for? Who would that be and what would you cook for them?
My hero – the father of botanical cooking – Michel Bras. I would prepare any one of my dishes for him to hear what his impressions are about my interpretation of Botanical cuisine.
Who does the cooking at home?
Either my mom or I cook at home. When I do, I prefer to keep it simple. My favorite is pasta with a creamy mushroom sauce (recipe below if useful!).
Do you have any guilty pleasure(s)?
Watching a box set on TV and eating popcorn.
You work with food all day, yet you are tiny in stature. How do you manage to stay in such incredible shape?
It is all about moderation.
There’s a saying ‘you should never trust a thin chef’? What is your opinion of that?
It doesn’t matter the size of a chef. What does matter is the size of their heart (the love they put into the dishes they create).
How long have you been at the helm of Mosaic?
We opened Restaurant Mosaic just over 11 years ago.
It is hard work being a chef – describe a typical day in your life?
As we serve breakfast to our hotel guests, the first person to arrive in the kitchen at 06:30 puts the croissants and pain au chocolat in to bake. The rest of the team will start to arrive soon after and we have a morning ritual where we each hug one another and say good morning. Once everyone is busy with their prep and the kitchen is set up for breakfast, I will head outside to pick some garnish and see what is new and interesting in the garden. Our guests enjoy sleeping a bit later as it is so peaceful, so breakfast service seldom finishes before 11am. Thereafter it is a quick scrub down of the kitchen and then we get set up for lunch service. I personally go out to each table to welcome the guests and explain the menu. By the time I have finished with the last table and get back into the kitchen. the first amuse bouche is already starting to leave the kitchen and service is in full swing. Depending on the pace of our guests, we usually finish lunch service somewhere between 4pm and 5pm. Then we all grab a quick few bites of our staff lunch and everyone gets back to prepping to get ready for dinner service.
At 5.30pm we all scrub down and set up again so that we have an hour to do the final preparations before dinner service starts at 7pm … and everything starts all over again. By around 11.30pm, everything starts to wind down and we pack up and clean up the kitchen. Depending on who finished service first that person would start preparing staff dinner and at about half past midnight, we have a bite to eat and head to bed.
What can patrons expect when they dine at Mosaic?
My dream was always for Restaurant Mosaic to become one of the best restaurants in the country. My initial vision that I had for the restaurant, remains unchanged. My team and I are still committed to providing guests with an unforgettable multi-sensory experience. We endeavour to create a tranquil environment that reflects our passion for art and nature, where patrons can relax and escape from their busy lives while enjoying exquisite food that tells a story.
Is there a lot of pressure on you to create ‘the next best thing’ and how do you keep calm?
There is some pressure but I go for long walks either at the beautiful Francolin Conservancy where Mosaic is situated or on the beach at Nature’s Valley where we have a second home. Both calm me while also giving me inspiration. One of my favorite dishes in a previous menu was Millionaire’s Nest Egg; quail eggs, black truffle paste and courgette served with fresh truffles. The inspiration for this dish came when I happened to see a discarded bird’s nest during a walk in the conservancy where the restaurant is situated.
Do you have any non-negotiables no-no’s in your kitchen?
A lack of consistency. The saying that you are only as good as the last plate you send out of the kitchen was drilled into me at every service in every kitchen I have ever worked in. Nothing except “perfection” was allowed to go out of the kitchen.
Do you have any kitchen gadgets you cannot do without?
I love sauces so a good whisk is essential.
The design of the restaurant is beautiful and the interior very warm and inviting. Who is behind the design and interiors?
This a true family affair and we all had a finger in the pie when it came to the interior of the restaurant – but I have always had a great affinity for Art Nouveau interiors.
You are very involved in the restaurant – greeting patrons and showing your face regularly. How important is it to be the face of Mosaic?
I think it is key! If I am not in the kitchen, the restaurant does not open. I think diners like to know that the chef, whose food they have heard about, is in the kitchen preparing dishes for them and they like to meet that person. I also like to meet our guests and get direct feedback from them on their meal – good or bad.
Do you have any embarrassing cooking stories to share?
A long time ago, I tried to cook rice in a microwave. The result was charcoal. There have never been short cuts in my kitchen since then!
Have you ever received unwarranted criticism? If yes, how did you deal with it?
It is impossible to please every one of your guests all of the time and since botanical cooking is a very unique style, it doesn’t always appeal to everyone’s taste. I have been told by some guests that there are too many flowers in my food – but that is my style. As a chef, it is important to understand this and ensure that you share your food philosophy with your clients, but I also think it is important that guests do a little research about restaurants before they just blindly go and make a booking to ensure that the restaurant they have selected will appeal to their personal taste and will minimalise the chances that they might be disappointed.
What type of restaurant patron are you?
When I have some time available to eat out, I like to explore and to visit all the different chefs I know, so I very seldom go to the same restaurants and vary from Japanese and Italian to fine dining – I really enjoy other chefs’ cooking. Every year I am fortunate enough to travel abroad and try to eat at some of the best restaurants in the world.
What have been your best dining experiences that have stood out for you?
I’ve had some incredible experiences but the ultimate was in a small restaurant called L’Astrance in Paris. Pascal Barbot’s approach to food means no cream or butter. Rather he uses Oriental ingredients and citrus. I’ll never forget his foie gras with raw button mushrooms and hazelnut oil.
Have you eaten anything out-of-the ordinary and weird?
I have eaten fruit bat before when I was in Seychelles, and had kangaroo and crocodile while I was in England – but other than that … I can’t think of anything else.
Is there a dish you really don’t like and wouldn’t eat?
As a chef, I believe that you should try everything at least once (this naturally excludes any daredevil concoctions made by anyone with the sole purpose to be unpleasant or inedible). Having said that, I am not a big fan of kidneys!
You have travelled for work and hopefully for pleasure. Which places are embedded in your memory and why?
My greatest food discovery while traveling was tonka beans (with its incredible marzipan, vanilla flavors) which I tasted for the first time at Chef Jean Georges Klein’s Restaurant L’Arnsbourg in France and white balsamic glaze which I discovered in Modena during my first visit to Italy.
Any places you would like to visit in the future?
It is still on my bucket list to travel to Japan, I have not explored India or Morocco yet and can’t wait to do so… and there are a few restaurants in the United States that I have always wanted to go and visit like Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Alinea in Chicago … and this is to name but a few.
When people travel somewhere, how important do you think the food aspect of the experience should be?
I can’t speak for others, but for me, it is one of the main reasons why I travel and why I love to travel.
You seem to be a private person. Is there someone special at home or is it a case of keeping your personal life private?
It is the latter. I keep my home life to myself.
Huge congratulations on winning the incredible accolade of The Best Lady Chef 2017. Please talk us through that mind-blowing experience.
Thank you. To be honest it took a while to sink in! It’s a major award when you look at the other chefs who were nominated such as Spain’s Elena Arzak and France’s Sophie Pic who both have three Michelin stars. I have always admired them. The one thing people have asked since my return to South Africa: “Did I know that I was going to win?” I really didn’t. I thought being nominated was the ultimate award. I made the decision to fly across the world for one night to attend the awards ceremony in Warsaw, because it was such a wonderful privilege to be included with these giants who I admire so much. I was just excited to meet some of my food heroes and be in the same room as them. To win exceeded all my wildest dreams. It is a great honor for me, my wonderful team and for South Africa.
Any exciting plans you would like to share?
To keep on growing in culinary terms and exploring all facets of food. Watch this space ….