CRUSH CHATS TO Rudi Liebenberg
Executive chef at the Mount Nelson
How does one get to become the executive chef at a hotel like the Mount Nelson? It must have been an interesting journey?
Well, they phoned me!
I always knew that I would be a chef or an artist. After leaving school I defied my mother by insisting on becoming a chef. I started off making pizzas (bad ones, at that) and worked my way through various other positions before studying at the WITS Hotel School. A couple of years later I had worked in the kitchens of the best hotels in Johannesburg, including the Hyatt Rosebank and the Saxon Boutique Hotel.
Do you come from a family of foodies?
I come from a family of cooks and foodies.
Is there something new food-wise that you are working on currently?
Both the Planet Restaurant and Oasis Bistro have new menus. But food-wise, I have been working on farm-to-plate food, gluten-free offerings for Morning Tea and planning picnics on the lawn amongst the new sculpture exhibition.
We have heard there is strange obsession with the common carrot?
*Laughs* There are carrots and then there are carrots, so to speak. Good quality is rare and the most important thing is to respect that and to present the ingredient as simply and honestly as possible, even if it is only a carrot.
Which new international food trends excite you?
The current trend of using everything and wasting as little of your produce as possible. Also capturing the integrity of the ingredient.
What do you think of modern, experimental cuisine?
I am not a fan of using strange chemistry in my food.
We often think of a chef as an eccentric artist/scientist – is that a naive view and is the reality that your role is more meticulous accountant than wayward creative artist?
There is always admin to be done, but fortunately I get to be creative every day.
What is your process in developing a new recipe?
I always sketch a new recipe as part of my development process. I also like working with the whole kitchen team to develop a new recipe. I like taking something beautiful and turning it into something amazing.
How does food enrich your life outside of the heat of a commercial kitchen?
I love eating! But being creative also adds generously to my life.
Congratulations on winning the Sunday Times Chef of the Year 2012. How important are awards to you?
Awards are important for publicity, and I see it as my responsibility to share the experience with my fellow chefs in the kitchen.
Is a chef being caught in a fast food joint the equivalent of a South African politician being caught with his hands in the till?
No, chefs have to eat too. I like a good pizza or burger just like any other guy; the trick is to know where to find the best one.
Inspiration – is there a type of cuisine that you favour and does this come through in your food?
I quite like cooking with different spices, so I find that Indian and Spanish cuisine interest me. I am also very fond of Indonesian cooking, after spending some time there.
With an all-consuming job like yours do you have time for other interests?
Doing artistic things, like painting and sketching. I also enjoy reading a book and some good music.
Tell us about the chef’s table at the Mount Nelson.
I inherited the concept when I joined the Mount Nelson over three years ago. It is a very special experience to be so close to the action in the kitchen.
You have cooked for some very famous people, we understand. Any particular people who stood out?
Nelson Mandela – he likes simple food and is always very humble, thanking the chef personally. The actress, Lucy Liu – she eats anything you give her. And George W Bush, who had various secret servicemen tasting the food before he ate it.
Can you tell us about the wine-and-dine series that you and sommelier, Carl Habel, are doing?
It is great fun working with Carl. He understands food and brings a lot to the table when planning the wine-and-dine series. This ensures that the pairings are perfect, showing the best of the wine and the food.
Lastly, tell us about the fresh produce for the hotel – the hotel has its own vegetable garden – how much of the demand for fresh produce for the Mount Nelson comes from its own garden?
This was a great project from the start, with produce grown specifically for the hotel. But unfortunately we ran into some difficulty as the garden is climate dependant and entire crops can be wiped out by the wrong weather. The kitchen has therefore changed its strategy and designs the menu around what fresh produce is available, rather than the other way around.