You can tell that Grant Cullingworth is not happy with his current situation. The executive chef of top Cape Town hotel Table Bay is not cooking his own food, you see - it's Conrad Gallagher's food.
The infamous globe-trotting Irish chef resurfaced in South Africa last year (see Caterer, 16 October 2003) to take on the mantle of group executive chef for the Table Bay's owner, Sun International, to bring the group's menus up to speed. With seven hotels to look after, from Windhoek to Gaborone, Gallagher has his work cut out for him, especially as eating out in South Africa has always been something of a challenge.
On my last trip to the country, four years ago, the food was unexciting, to say the least - too many smothering sauces, too many ingredients on the plate (with too many ingredients flown in), and way too much butter and cream. But things are changing fast. Nowadays, eating out in Cape Town and the surrounding winelands is on a par with the best elsewhere.
This is down to the growing infrastructure of funky B&Bs and swanky hotels that are catering for swelling numbers of food-savvy tourists. Also put it down to some of the world's most beautiful scenery - the Franschhoek Valley will take your breath away. And put it down to a still weak Rand (11.35 to the £1 and falling, the last time I looked). Combine these factors and you have a serious holiday destination.
Then there's the impact of the South African wine industry to consider. It's now right at the forefront of New World wine-making, which is no mean feat considering how far it has come in recent years. It wasn't that long ago when Nelson Mandela walked to freedom - and over-cropped, virus-ridden vineyards were awash with inferior grape varieties, with little incentive to improve, such were the shackles of the co-operatives.
Regions which formerly produced little but plonk are now emerging as serious players. And already established regions - such as Paarl, Stellenbosch and Constantia - have benefited hugely from an injection of fresh ideas. Exports have correspondingly soared.
In part, thanks must go to the meteoric rise in popularity of cookery programmes. "They've been a huge influence," Cullingworth agrees. "There's been a big shift in the public's education. They have become a lot more educated about food and wine - so much so that they are dictating what they want to eat in restaurants. We've still got a way to go, though - mostly with regard to suppliers and access to ingredients."
Finding a good fish restaurant in the Cape, for example, is surprisingly difficult. The best fish from these parts invariably ends up on the menus in smarter, more cash-rich Johannesburg restaurants. Only a handful of options on the menu at the "acclaimed" Black Marlin restaurant on brooding Cape Point involved fish that were caught locally - the rest had been flown in, frozen.
But things are improving. At the Twelve Apostles hotel on the slopes of Table Mountain, chef Roberto de Carvalho has created a Cooking with Fynbos menu (the flora and fauna of the Cape Peninsula). Working with the boffins at the University of Stellenbosch, de Carvalho weaves wild herbs and other Fynbos ingredients into his menus.
Starters include ostrich fillet carpaccio rolled in thyme and wild rosemary, with Paarl grapeseed oil and wild dagga pesto-tossed rocket. Mains include loin of springbok wrapped in marogo and cured bacon with roasted butternut putu pap, finishing, say, with a rooibos ice-cream.
Back in downtown Cape Town, the Savoy Cabbage serves seared zebra carpaccio as the house special. Sadly, it had run out the night I visited - but I did try the star anise-cured duck ham. I also had slow-cooked Karoo lamb shank curry (with ginger, fresh coriander, on jeera pulao with fresh rotis) at Ginja - Gallagher's favourite dining spot.
In fact, at Ginja, you could believe you were in San Francisco - with its blood-red walls, exposed copper ducting and open kitchen. "We have nothing to hide here," says chef-patron Mike Basset, who cooks for an integrated Cape Town crowd (another new sight since my last visit).
Jean-Pierre Rossouw has seen this rapid transformation at close quarters - he's the editor of the popular eponymous restaurant guide. "The restaurant scene here is nascent," he says. "Pasta, pizza and steak are where it was until recently, but because the Cape has become such a big tourist destination, things have really picked up and the food has become cosmopolitan really quickly. Now there's a restaurant on every corner."
Things might have progressed even faster were it not for the problem of staffing. This enduring hospitality headache is also a pain in South Africa - in fact, it's worse here, says Cullingworth. "We don't have catering colleges like you have," he says. "Ours are mostly privately run, and they cost." That said, there were two hotel schools five years ago, and now there are 10.
Cullingworth also comes out with an extraordinary revelation - 80% of his brigade are female. And his kitchen is not alone in this. "It was all very male-dominated when I started cooking 15 years ago," he says. "Not now, though - women outnumber men at hotel school."
In fact, it was a female chef, Margot Janse, who scooped this year's top chef award in Wine Magazine's Top 100 Restaurants in South Africa 2004 (not to mention her special honorary award from the 2004 Eat Out restaurant guide). Her restaurant Le Quartier Fran‡ais, in Franschhoek, has 20 women in her kitchen. "We're a 99%-female team, plus one male trainee chef," she says, grinning.
Blonde and permanently pony-tailed, Janse has cooked at owner Susan Huxter's wonderfully individual (and sumptuous) restaurant-with-rooms for eight years now. Her bold cooking combines crunchy textures with soft mousses, spiced citrus with herby broths, with dishes such as saut‚d wild mushrooms with deep-fried egg and truffle hollandaise, and bacon-roasted springbok loin, seared liver and poached boudin with a sweetcorn fritter.
She grew up in The Netherlands, then followed a boyfriend to South Africa when she was 21 years old, beginning her cooking career in Johannesburg, after being given 20kg of squid to clean one day (she loved it). She quickly moved through the ranks, then took a sous chef position at Le Quartier Fran‡ais in 1995. The rest, as they say, is history.
"Our culinary excellence has never been in better shape," says Lannice Snyman, editor of the Eat Out restaurant guide. " I truly believe our top chefs compare well with the best in the world right now." And she's not wrong.
South Africa's culinary heritage South African cooking found its roots among the Dutch pioneers who arrived in the mid-17th century, who had already developed a taste for spices, shipped home from their colonies in the East Indies. The slaves and political exiles who arrived from the Spice Islands and southern India during the latter part of the 17th century and well into the next have made the biggest impact on the Cape kitchen, known as Cape Malay.
You'll see dishes such as bobotie, a sort of South African shepherd's pie (and the country's national dish), made with spiced, minced beef or lamb, baked and topped with an addictive savoury custard; and ostrich neck potjie, a rib-sticking stew simmered in a black cast-iron pot over low flames.
These traditional dishes are now getting a contemporary spin in many of South Africa's upscale restaurants, which fuse them with flavours of the continent and elsewhere, combining Old World techniques with New World innovation.
"South African cooking is, in its basic elements, very peasanty - and it's about refining that," says Cullingworth. As an example, he adapts the spices used in biltong in a crust for tuna, which he serves with a tomato and bean bredie.
Despite such instances, there's far from enough indigenous culinary tradition and flavours being used in South African cuisine, according to some. In fact, South Africa is even in danger of ghettoising its culinary heritage, according to chef and lecturer Anna Trapido, at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine near Johannesburg.
"They have not been adequately incorporated into modern South African restaurants," Trapido says. "African South African food is still largely regarded as an oxymoron. Indigenous foods are so overlooked that we don't even have English words to adequately describe them. Local starches including Tsonga xigugu [mealie meal infused with roasted nuts] and Zulu isibhede [made from fermented sorghum paste] are ‘porridge'. Such terms reveal a deep ignorance as to the complex and distinct preparation methods involved."
She is evangelical on the subject of the absence of indigenous ingredients from South Africa's shops and restaurants. "It has left white South Africans ignorant of local flavour combinations," she declares. "You can buy star fruit and mange-tout at Woolworth's, but not one of the numerous forms of morogo." Are these an acquired taste, maybe? Not according to Trapido, who finds dishes such as Xhosa imitwane - a stew of the delicate terminal shoots of pumpkin runners and pumpkin flower - absolutely delicious.
South Africa's specialities
Samoosa - fried triangular pastries filled with minced meat or vegetables
Braaied snoek - barbecued fish often served, rather curiously, with apricot jam
Lamb sosaties - kebabs, to you and me
Biltong - wind-dried beef, venison or ostrich
Bobotie - the country's national dish, spiced minced beef or lamb baked and topped with savoury custard
Boontjiesop - bean soup
Bredie - lamb stew made with seasonal vegetables, including water blommetjies (water hyacinths), which are also used to make a traditional soup
Breyani - think biriani
Ostrich neck potjie - a rib-sticking stew simmered in a cast-iron pot over low flames
Koolfrikkadelle - spicy meatballs wrapped in cabbage
Umngqusho - samp (crushed whole dried mealie kernels) and beans with vegetables
Morogo - vegetable stew with greens, preferably bean leaves
Masonja - caterpillar stew (believe it)
Five great places to dine in the Cape
Bosman's at the Grande Roche, Paarl Tel: 00 27 21 863 2727
Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa, Camps Bay, Cape Town Tel: 00 27 21 437 9000
Le Quartier Français, Franschhoek Tel: 00 27 21 876 2151
Ginja, Cape Town Tel: 00 27 21 426 2368
Savoy Cabbage, Cape Town Tel: 00 27 21 426 2626