We chat to Head Chef at Protégé in Franschhoek, Cameron Smith

Words: Crush | Photography: Andrea van der Spuy

Protégé Restaurant in Franschhoek has been making a name for itself ever since it opened its doors in late 2018. The restaurant, which is part of the La Colombe group, has comfortably established itself in that often-difficult-to-make-work-gap between super fine dining and casual elegance. We recently dined at Protégé and absolutely loved the experience and wanted to find out more about the chef heading up the kitchen team, Cameron Smith.

Chatting to chef Cameron Smith

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into the culinary industry?

Cameron Smith: I started off my life in a small place known as, King Williams Town, situated in the Eastern Cape. Most of my childhood was spent on dairy farms, game farms and on the sports field. At the age of 10, my family moved to Cape Town. After finishing junior school at WPPS (Western Province Preparatory School) in Cape Town I returned to the Eastern Cape where I attended boarding school at St Andrews College, Grahamstown.

Whilst at boarding school I hadn’t quite figured out that I had a deep passion and love for food. I realised this passion for the food industry while working in street market stores such as Lamb and Tuna Man and Simply Paella.

It started out just trying to earn a little extra pocket money while studying at varsity college. After realising that I was spending more time at the market than at varsity, I decided to study cheffing. I completed my training from South African Chefs Academy in 2015.

How did you find yourself at one of the top restaurants in the world – La Colombe?

Cameron Smith: In November of 2015, I approached La Colombe Constantia to inquire about a possibility for a position in their amazing kitchen. After completing a service trial, I joined Executive Chef Scot Kirton and Head Chef James Gaag and the La Colombe team as a commis chef.

It has without a doubt been a life-changing experience and I have not looked back since.

While learning and moving up in the kitchen team, I observed Chef Scot and Chef James’s ways and love for creating strong bold flavours.

After being granted the position of Junior Sous Chef at La Colombe Constantia, Chef Scot approached me with an opportunity; to join Chef John Norris-Rodgers at La Petite Colombe, Franschhoek in 2018 under a new position, Sous Chef.

Always loving a new challenge, I accepted this opportunity with both hands. After spending some time with Chef John and his amazing team, a new opportunity came to light in the form of Protégé. Coming from a street food background, I was very intrigued and excited by the style and flavours they were expecting to showcase in this new restaurant and have now developed into what we know today.

Can you pinpoint exactly what made you want to become a chef, was it a memorable meal or a moment that cemented it for you?

Cameron Smith: I can’t exactly say there was an exact moment or meal, but I can definitely say the moment I walked into La Colombe and observed how a team of diverse people can come together and create memories and smiles for others was definitely a defining moment. I think what makes me love being a chef is the teamwork in the kitchen.

Has there ever a point where you considered doing something else?

Cameron Smith: If I ever did consider changing my profession, I could easily see myself fishing out at deep at sea running a commercial fishing boat. At some point in my life, I would thoroughly love to get involved and spend time helping at animal rehabilitation centres.

What can you tell us about the concept of Protégé?

Cameron Smith: There are a few reasons in my opinion as to why Protégé is so unique; one being the creative style of food and bringing many different cultures into play (Cape Malay, Asian, French, North Africa).

The second would have to be the small plate concept; it gives guests the opportunity to choose whatever they desire, and the greatest aspect for me is at Protégé we are creating an amazing future together as a team for one another.

Is there a certain dish on the menu that you think is particularly iconic to the restaurant or special to you?

Cameron Smith: There are so many dishes that are iconic to Protégé; the Lamb roti, KFC and the edamame beans to name just a few (Ed’s note: that edamame is the stuff of dreams). However, personally, I would have to say my absolute favourite dish is the Kerala fried fish.

The Kerela Fried Fish is served with a lime and garlic-seasoned labneh and gently curried sultana purée, this adds the perfect amount of sweetness and richness to complement this dish. Perfect for winter.

Does being located in Franschhoek – SA’s culinary capital – add a little to the pressure?

Cameron Smith: Definitely, the competition on the Main Street alone is astoundingly strong, however as Chef Scot has always told me, “consistency is key to a successful restaurant”.

The greatest thing about Franschhoek is that each restaurant is different to one another and this just creates an amazing food and wine destination to visit.

How do you keep things fresh and yourself inspired?

Cameron Smith: One way I inspire myself is to ignite an interest for flavours, textures and visuals in others. In turn, their enthusiasm inspires me to re-create and develop new dishes and to revive old ones

What is the question most people often ask you when you reveal that you’re a chef?

Cameron Smith: Do you ever cook at home? Or where do you work?

Have you had a kitchen disaster that you look back now on and can laugh about?

Cameron Smith: When I was still new to the kitchen, I thought it would be an excellent idea to slice baby radishes on a gravity slicer. At least half a dozen chefs told me I was being stupid, being my usual stubborn self, I wanted to cut the perfect radish. Therefore I chose to ignore them, informing them that I trusted my own judgement. Five seconds later the radish slipped, and I sliced my finger.

3 essential ingredients that you can’t live without in your kitchen?

Garlic
Soya Sauce
Ginger

What can people expect from Protégé going forward?

Cameron Smith: We will be finding new fun and exciting ways to present our food. Creating flavours, smells and textures that will be ingrained into your memory. And of course, that personal touch that will keep you coming back.

Quickfire Questions

Last book you read? Mushrooms by Roger Phillips

Secret food guilty pleasure? The classic HOT DOG

Bucket list travel destination? New York and Hong Kong

Most expensive recent purchase? 2nd hand global knife set, complete with; de-boning knife, chefs knife and filleting knife just to add to a few of the kitchen tools I use on a regular basis in the kitchen.

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