Female Chef Focus: Charné Sampson of Epice

Words: Robyn Samuels

Welcome to the first instalment of our Women’s Month series. Over the course of this month, you’re likely to hear ‘sadvertising’ about how ‘strong’ and ‘courageous’ women are — but, in all honesty, we’re really just tired of putting up with, well, you know what, and justifying why female representation matters. When it comes to the food industry, we know that it’s a male-dominated field (surprise surprise), so we’re giving flowers where they’re due. The female chefs featured in this series are damn good at what they do. This is the one time we can unapologetically say that women do belong in the kitchen.

For our first focus of this series, we interview Chef Charne Sampson Head Chef at Epice — part of the La Colombe group.

female chefs in South Africa

Chef Charné may be young but is a seasoned chef, having been named one of the Cape’s Top Ten Female Chefs in 2021. Previously, pastry chef at La Colombe and a lover of spices, it comes as no surprise that chef Charné is Head Chef at Epice — coincidentally meaning ‘spice’ in French. Hungry and humble, she cites Julia Child as one of her inspirations and famously quotes her by saying ‘no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing’. She tells us about challenges she’s faced as a young, female head chef and how she found her rhythm in the hot kitchen.

Interview with Chef Charné

Like many great chefs, the inspiration and introduction to Charné’s culinary journey was inspired by her grandmother. We take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about her family trips to the Garden Route, and back to Bo Kaap, one of her restaurant’s cultural muses. Join us as we chat with chef Charné Sampson.

We believe your gran was a great cook, could you tell us which dishes she prepared and which you were most fond of?

I grew up in Cape Town and have a fairly large family, so my grandmother baked and cooked daily. I kept my grandmother company in the kitchen and learned by tasting spoonfuls of different cakes, biscuits or stews. Some of her most memorable dishes include mielie meal, with a knob of butter for breakfast. She also loved making potjiekos, beef with vegetables with freshly pickled beetroot was my favourite – nothing beats pickled beetroot!

My grandmother was a fantastic baker, her best was her homemade bread, she made all different kinds of breads, loaves and rolls. I especially loved this garlicky bread she made; in the centre were bits of bacon with garlic butter and cheese. Oh, as well as these delicious peanut butter biscuits . Never missing a beat, my family often reminds me of how they would catch me stealing them — that, and tales of how I would start crying if my brothers didn’t share the leftover cake batter with me…

Is that where you got your love for baking?

When I was 16, I started making novelty cakes for friends and family which developed into a little business. Shortly after, I received a Scholarship from Students for a Better Future — they funded my tuition for high school and encouraged me to pursue my interest in the culinary industry, they also gave me a scholarship to study at Silwood School of Cookery and I entered numerous competitions. In my 2nd year at Silwood, the idea of being a pastry chef and perfecting my skill became more apparent. I elected to do my 3rd year at La Colombe to work in pastry.

Did your experience as a pastry chef help you as sous chef and head chef, if at all?

Working in the pastry section is very meticulous, as you HAVE to follow the recipes and if you don’t understand the techniques it is almost guaranteed to flop, whereas in the hot kitchen you can add a little more salt, acidity or sugar etc. to correct a sauce or puree. So, it helped me notice the smaller details when making food, and because baking requires many techniques, those transferred skills almost make it easier to pinpoint what went wrong and tweak, accordingly. It also helped with time management – in pastry, different elements often need to either be set, baked or cooled down before being used for service; this experience helped with prioritising a prep list in the hot kitchen.

Sounds like an awful lot of responsibility, what kind of challenges have you met along the way?

I learned quite a few tricks and gained my confidence in pastry. I faced new challenges when I moved over to the hot kitchen. Being responsible for four different sections (hot starters, cold starters, sauce and grill) and not just one (pastry) was daunting, to say the least. Everyone looks to you for the answers and sometimes I did not have them.

You need to multitask; control back-of-house and front-of-house to an extent, ensuring the food gets prepared at the correct times, so that service has a good flow. It’s often compared to a waltz, a dance of organised chaos with people circling one another and moving triple time. I slowly but surely got into the rhythm of getting each section comfortable with what to prioritise and to work together. The sauce section would help the starters sections when service started and vice versa, which created a more fun environment and a sense of community in the kitchen.

What’s your biggest inspiration for cooking? How do you source inspiration for culinary concepts?

I would say my biggest inspiration for cooking is my family. Growing up, we went on many adventures along the Garden Route and along the West Coast — my brothers and I would explore the outdoors and take in all the surroundings. Food was also constantly involved, each day would be breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner and yes, it was all homemade. Dessert is ALWAYS a must at family gatherings — usual suspects involve something chocolatey, like chocolate cake with caramel, banana and cream. Savoury treats would be braaibroodjies, if we had the time.

Who or what are some of your favourite muses?

With all the flamboyant flavours, colours and views surrounding us right here in Cape Town, we take a lot of creativity from Bo Kaap, with all its history and heritage, as well as the West Coast, where we source some of our seafood. As well as travelling to see what else the world has to offer.

If you were to describe your cooking style, what would it be?

I would describe my cooking style as complex. It involves a variety of different spices being blended and cooked to achieve different flavours, and to take you on a spice journey.

Do you have a mentor? Could you tell us about them and how they influenced you as a chef today?

I would not necessarily say I have one single mentor, I’ve learnt a lot from multiple chefs who are or have been part of La Colombe. But if I had to pick I would say James Gaag, Executive Chef at La Colombe and Co-owner at Epice. James has influenced my career by providing me with guidance into the industry and motivating me to do better and be better. He has always been driven to be the best and would find unconventional ways of doing things — he would have an idea of how to present or make a dish and everyone would say that’s crazy, but somehow he would bring his ideas to life.

This helped me think about how different recipes come together to develop a dish that’s balanced and to continue trying different methods with different ingredients until it’s perfect. I’ve learnt how to run a kitchen, think on my feet and overcome different issues that can occur in the kitchen. He helped me believe in myself, to work hard and that the possibilities within the industry could be endless.

As a female chef, if you could change one thing about the food industry, what would it be?

To change the mindset that head chefs of restaurants are male. In my own experience, many guests do ask the front-of-house team ‘what’s the chef’s name’ and ‘where he comes from’. Most industries are male-dominated, and I don’t get offended when guests assume that the head chef is male, but what does upset me is when someone comes to the kitchen, sees the first male and congratulates them on an amazing meal, which then leads to an awkward conversation where the staff member points out that I am the head chef and they proceed to congratulate me and say ‘wow, we cannot believe you’re the head chef’ — leaving me feeling unsure whether it’s because I’m a female or if I look too young.

What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with at the moment and why?

Pineapple, we recently added a pineapple dessert to the menu and the spice to compliment it is star anise. I enjoy the dish as it is acidic, but fruity and with the slight liquorice flavour from the star anise; I also added some coconut for a creamy element. It reminds me of camping near the seaside, it’s fresh and cleansing.

You’re hosting a dream dinner soirée for three of your favourite people — fictional character, dead or alive. Who would be at the table and why?

Remy from Ratatouille — the movie is an inspirational one to keep fighting for what you’re passionate about even though the odds are against you. I love watching it as Remy reminds me to follow through with what you know and help others reach their potential as well.
Anthony Bourdain — I would love to hear about all his stories, the highs and lows of his career and what he would’ve changed in his life looking back.
Clare Smyth — the first and only British female chef to hold three Michelin stars in the UK, and only the fourth British chef in history to receive the honour. I would love to hear what she would say about my dinner soirée and if she has any tips for me.

What do you get up to on your days off?

I usually have two days off. One of the days I spend catching up on series (Manifest, Iron Chef and Chef’s Table), resting, meal prepping and cleaning. The other day I spent time with some family and friends.

What’s one thing about you that most people wouldn’t know?

When I do plate up a dish and it all comes together, I do a quirky little happy dance to celebrate. Well, I do that whenever something goes my way. I’ve got a big heart, especially with people who are close to me. I always arrive at the birthday party with homemade cake in hand.

We know you like cooking with Cape Malay spices. What’s one spice everyone should own and why?

Cumin, it’s actually my favourite spice. It adds a slight citrus, nutty flavour to dishes and can pair well with sweet and savoury dishes

You started your chef career pretty early and last year, you were named one of the Cape’s Top 10 Women Chefs — a brilliant feat. Many youths feel the pressure to make it on Forbes 30 Under 30 lists and receive thousands of accolades in the infancy of their careers. What advice do you have for aspiring chefs or creatives wanting to ‘make their mark’ in the food industry?

My advice for working in this industry is that you need to have perseverance and determination. You need to know why you are doing what you are doing. There aren’t many times you will be told, ‘wow that is the best sauce I’ve ever tasted’, or ‘thank you for going the extra mile’ — instead, you might hear things like ‘add more salt’, when it actually needs a squeeze of lime or lemon juice.

When you know why you are in the industry and keep reminding yourself of that, it will help drive you to continue on your path. If things seem like they aren’t going your way, your perseverance will help you, despite any lack of success. My favourite quote by Julia Child is, “No one’s born a great cook, one learns by doing”. You’ve got to keep constantly learning about your industry and keep exploring different avenues within the industry.

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